Today’s review asks the question, is it possible to write a script about cancer and death in the spec market?

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: (from writer) A man sets out to to plan himself an epic funeral, only to find himself falling for the woman he hires to plan it.
About: This is…. Amateur Week SMACKDOWN – 5 scripts, all of which have been pre-vetted by the SRF (Scriptshadow Reader Faithful), vie for the Top Prize, an official endorsement from whoever the guy is who runs this site. Good luck to all!
Writer: Joe Tone
Details: 94 pages

Bat_Hearse_1_by_Falln_Stock

In Lieu of Flowers dares to tackles one of the most steadfast Hollywood scriptwriting rules: Don’t write about a main character dying of cancer. There are amendments to this rule, of course. You can write secondary characters dying of cancer. You can write hit men dying of cancer. You can write certain genre-film characters dying of cancer. And every once in awhile, a film like “50/50” slips into the market (if your best friend is Seth Rogen). But anything in the drama/comedy category, you’re probably going to want to stay away from cancer. This comes from the well-known belief that people go to the movies to escape, not feel depressed or reminded about death (even if you’re treating that death with a smile!).

Now that doesn’t mean these kinds of films can’t be made on a budget and sold on the indie circuit, which I’m hoping is what In Lieu of Flowers is shooting for. However, for the record, if I were a screenwriter beginning my career today, I would stay far away from a drama or dramedy about a guy dying and planning his funeral. It’s just so hard to get producers to bite on that, even if it’s a great script. I’m hoping against all hope, however, that In Lieu of Flowers is the exception to that rule. Let’s find out!

48 year old Pete Calhoun is an obituary writer who despises his job. That’s probably because his talents lie deeper than coming up with flowery words for dead people. There are hints here and there that Pete used to be one of the best writers at the newspaper, but at some point, he did something that sent him to Obituary Purgatory. Now he spends his days hoping that the latest famous person who died is someone he’s already written a pre-obituary for.

Oh yeah. Pete is also dying. He’s got some pretty intense cancer playing kickball in his organs and while there’s a 50/50 chance he could kick back, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his existence getting zapped like a lukewarm big mac. He decides instead to accept his fate, and to take it one step further: plan his own funeral.

Enter Kate, who’s “attractive and artsy” (this is a very common description, by the way, and common descriptions lead to general characters– you have to give us a more original description that makes your character unique). Kate works for an event-planning business and when Pete sees her work, he asks her to plan his funeral. Kate is horrified. Why in the world would she help a man plan his own funeral? How morbid!

But Pete is persuasive (money talks!) and the two begin the process of trying to plan the raddest funeral ever. Pete doesn’t want things to be depressing, so they go to places like Hearse Fairs (where people display their tricked-out hearses you can hire for your funeral) as well as search for the perfect funeral band (Why they didn’t look at Band of Horses, whose song “The Funeral” is freaking awesome, I’m not sure). Of course, Kate begins to fall in love with Pete during this process, even though she knows it’s a dead end.

But as Pete begins to fall in love too, he realizes that maybe giving in was the wrong choice, and goes for a last-second all-out chemo campaign. Will the cancer be destroyed? Will he and Kate live happily ever after? Or will it be too late and it all end up in that amazing funeral they were planning all along? You can download In Lieu of Flowers below to find out (or just keep reading this review. I’ll probably spoil it).

Okay, so I’ll start with the obvious. Here’s why these kinds of scripts rarely sell. Because they depress you. And there’s no doubt, reading an entire movie about a guy who’s going to die of cancer – no matter how many cute conversations you douse it in – depressed me. I mean, twenty pages in and I wanted to go to Disney World and ride the Pirates of The Carribean ride 18 times in a row just to remind myself I was still alive. And that has nothing to do with the writing skillset on display here. Joe’s a good writer. But why, Joe, are you trying to get me to buy your script by depressing the heck out of me? It doesn’t make sense. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The odds are already stacked against us for ever breaking into this industry. Why write something that makes it even harder?

As for the script itself, while there’s some good writing here, a couple of things could be improved. First, there’s not enough story. I think that’s evident by the 95 page running time. This could be looked at as a good thing – a nice slim script that can be powered through quickly. But for me, there just wasn’t enough going on. There needed to be relevant subplots or complexities that turned this into more than just a guy and a girl hanging out. This became clear to me when an irrelevant plotline surfaced at the midpoint – Pete needed to write an obituary on the dying owner of the paper he worked for. It didn’t have anything to do with anything, yet it takes up a large 6-7 page chunk of the story. It felt to me like padding, like a writer trying to give his script enough pages to be classified as a feature script.

Second, I found it strange that everybody was so baffled about Pete wanting to plan his funeral. Like all the event planner people and friends of the event-planner people who heard what he wanted to do were gobsmacked. Is this really that unheard of? A lot of people know when they’re going to die. I’m assuming a percentage of those people would want to plan their own funeral. In fact, about 8 months ago, I read a script ABOUT funeral planning that also contained a character wanting to plan her funeral. So I don’t think it’s as alien a concept as the writer makes it out to be.  Why does this concern me?  Because it implies that he didn’t do the research.  I need to feel with everything I read that the writer knows more about the subject matter than me.  I’m not sure I felt that way here.

Ultimately, I think this script is trying to be the edgy, dark, guy-meets-girl comedy that survives off witty guy-girl dialogue, and to that end it succeeds (in places). The dialogue is pretty good. The problem is, I think all of us writers write one of these scripts early on in our writing career, and therefore they always stick out as “early-career” scripts. It’s a little raw, unconcerned with marketability, has a little wish-fulfillment to it, in that us reclusive writer-types are going to find that beautiful nerdy artsy girl when we least expect it. But as we mature in our writing, we move into movies that producers actually want to buy.

To that end, unless you’re going to go out there and make this movie yourself (which is always the best thing to do with a hard-to-sell script by the way), I’d throw this in the file cabinet until you’ve become a big shot. But if you are going to continue with it, I might look to play more with the obituary angle in order to take full advantage of the irony of the situation. For example, maybe when Pete realizes he’s dying, he decides to write his own obituary. Upon doing so, he realizes he hasn’t done anything in his life to actually warrant an interesting obituary. So he dedicates the next month to living a life that will result in the best obituary ever.  That sounds like a slightly more uplifting movie (even if it is a little Bucket List-ish).

Then again, you’re still writing about a guy who’s going to die, which is a hard-as-hell sell.

Script link: In Lieu Of Flowers

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Imagine a reader sitting down to read your script. If you’re imagining them being depressed for any reason while reading your screenplay, you probably want to write something else. Because remember, the producer is reading your script to determine its potential to make him money. If he’s depressed, he’s imagining a theater full of depressed people, which means he’s not going to buy your script.

  • http://www.dallasobserver.com Joe Tone

    Thanks Carson. All good intel. I think this especially makes sense:

    “Unless you’re going to go out there and make this movie yourself (which is always the best thing to do with a hard-to-sell script by the way), I’d throw this in the file cabinet until you’ve become a big shot.”

    The feedback I’ve received from readers has varied, but everyone agrees that it’s not a good script for a rookie outsider, because of its narrow appeal. Which I knew going in. I didn’t set out to become a screenwriter, go in search of a story, and land on this. I came up with the story idea and thought it would make a good screenplay — or could, in the right hands, which may not be mine. Not writing it didn’t feel like an option.

    Thus, I make this vow, for you and your readers: My next story, screenplay or otherwise, will not star a cancer-having protagonist. Unless he’s an immortal superhero and/or zombie, of course.

    • carsonreeves1

      sounds good to me! :)

    • Scarface(withoutthescar)

      How old is the writer?

      • http://www.dallasobserver.com Joe Tone

        35 going on 17 going on 82.

        • J. Lawrence Head

          Sounds like me. Old soul, young at heart, middle aged body, but chronologically 32 and change.

          • http://www.dallasobserver.com Joe Tone

            exactly.

    • J. Lawrence Head

      Can zombies get cancer?

      Can superman get cancer? Is there a cancer causing kyrptonite?

      • Mike.H

        Zombies itself is CANCER, so…no!

        • J. Lawrence Head

          Ya, I’d hate to be the oncologist giving a zombie that diagnosis.

          • witwoud

            Cancer is rare among zombies. OCD, on the other hand, is depressingly common. (‘Brains … brains … brains … brains … brains … brains … brains … brains … etc.’) I’ve often thought that this could form the basis of a decent drama in the hands of the right writer.

          • J. Lawrence Head

            So you’re saying Ritalin could counteract several of the effects of zombism?

            Doctor: Son, you’ve been infected with zombism. Take these pills for the ocd, this topical ointment for the decay, these iron suppliments for the sloggishness, and we’re going to schedule you for a stomach staple to curb your apetite for flesh.

          • J. Lawrence Head

            And then the zombie builds a tolerance to the drugs, goes on a zombie rampage, gets chased after by villagers with pitchforks and torches (just because) and dies. the end.

    • Citizen M

      Lassie Gets Cancer.

      Not a dry eye in the house.

    • andyjaxfl

      I think there’s an old Image comics character who was a superhero with cancer. Wish I could remember the name, but the 90s are a blur.

  • ximan

    “The problem is, I think all of us writers write one of these scripts early on in our writing career, and therefore they always stick out as “early-career” scripts.”

    THIS!!! Sooo true Carson. It’s strange how that works out. Kinda like what you were saying about the “Morphine” script. We all start out with the “fate” script, then we quit, then the “little-indy-that-could” script, then we quit, then (if you’re me) the “TOO-high-concept” scriptS (plural)! Then we quit again. THEN, as the years pass, we read the trades and the tracking boards and the script reviews and “Scriptshadow Secrets”……and lightbulb!! Then all we write is high-concept scripts with marketability, because anything else isn’t worth opening Final Draft for.

    • carsonreeves1

      For whatever reason, this does seem to be the path that a lot of writers take. I don’t think the end result should be “Super high concept script at all costs,” but you should definitely be writing scripts that can be seen as marketable by producers.

    • Acarl

      Damn! Very well said! Have you been spying on me?

      • ximan

        Lol, it’s just good to know I’m not alone!

  • J. Lawrence Head

    One other okay for the list… if you already have Nicholson and Freeman attached you can write all the cancer you want. Talent of that magnitude can sell anything onscreen

  • ripleyy

    How does one even start by directing their own script (by being Indie, that is)? If anyone has done it before, a few tips would be great because it’s something I’ve always wanted to try.

    That said, a “Band of Horses” kind of guy? Carson never fails to surprise me :) I’m giving the script a wee read now, so I’ll update soon.

    • MayfieldLake

      The Band Of Horses reveal throws the tale of who is Carson Reeves in a totally new direction. Just when I think I have him pigeonholed, he has to throw in a twist like that. Back to the drawing board.

  • Lisa Aldin

    I agree that cinema is a form of escapism and cancer can just hit way, way too close to home for a lot of people, unfortunately.

    Although I’d bet money THE FAULT IN OUR STARS will be big when that comes out (two teenagers with cancer fall in love) but that story has a huge built-in fan base.

  • J. Lawrence Head

    How many of those in your list were specs?

    • Tinker

      I don’t know if any or all of those were specs, but, to me, it doesn’t matter. They’re all great scripts. Great script is a great script and great scripts get notice. And Carson would agree, I hope, that that is what’s most important.

  • Poe_Serling

    My recommendation for the pallbearer of all funeral films is the black comedy The Loved One from 1965.

    Here an English poet comes to Hollywood and ends up in the funeral industry. It ‘satirizes the funeral business, including pet funerals, as well as the movie industry and the military-industrial complex.’

    Based on the expose The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, which exposed some of the abuses in the funeral industry.

    The film was directed by Tony Richardson. It starred Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud, and a host of other celebs including Liberace.

  • carsonreeves1

    I didn’t say you definitely shouldn’t, just that you probably shouldn’t. It’s a very difficult space to play in, and most of the writers who play in it are adapting material or writer/directors – in other words, not spec-script writers. If you absolutely cannot write anything else but depressing movies, then go for it. As long as you know your journey is going to be a thousand percent more difficult.

    • carsonreeves1

      Although I will admit that since the Black List has come along, you have a better chance of breaking in with one of these scripts than you used to. I mean, Dogs Of Babel might be considered depressing yet it’s one of my favorite scripts. But they’re having a hell of a time trying to get it made for this very reason. If they’re having trouble getting a film made that’s one of the best scripts in town and is adapted from a book AND has a star attached: Steve Carrell, then you can bet your bottom dollar an unknown writer is going to have a hell of a time with depressing subject matter.

      • sheebshag

        You’re assuming the reason it’s having trouble getting made is because it’s depressing? Seems like there could be a million other reasons…

        If you think a movie about someone about to die of cancer is depressing, what about a movie about a guy who whacks off in the shower every morning, whose wife cheats on him, whose daughter hates him, whose boss wants to fire him… and who is about to die by a bullet to the brain.

        And boy do I love that movie.

        • carsonreeves1

          American Beauty is one of those super-exception movies where the script was so genius that it didn’t matter that it broke practically every rule in the book. Even still, Alan Ball had an agent when he wrote that, had been in the business for a long time. He wasn’t an amateur writer trying to get noticed, which is a different ballgame.

        • witwoud

          What’s so depressing about whacking off in the shower? It’s actually the highlight of my day.

          Seriously, none of Lester’s problems is depressing in the way that incurable cancer is. At least a bullet to the brain is dramatic; watching people getting shot is more or less why we go to the movies. But there’s nothing dramatic or exciting about cancer. It’s just dismal.

          • sheebshag

            Incurable cancer and people getting shot aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. As long as your movie isn’t ABOUT cancer, you should be fine. AB isn’t about living a miserable life and then being murdered. That’s just the (depressing) circumstance. I don’t see why having cancer as a circumstance is necessarily a script-killer, even if it’s the protag who has cancer.

  • Citizen M

    This went whooshing over my head. It’s written for people who move in circles I will never be a part of due to age and general old-fartism. Plus the central conceit, namely that planning one’s funeral is somehow dangerously edgy, simply doesn’t hold water. In fact, in many communities it is de rigueur. That takes away a lot of the impact. Some of the observational humour seemed good, and some of the dialogue was funny, but I think this is for the young trendoids, not for me.

  • JakeBarnes12

    clueless.

    • gazrow

      “clueless.”

      Hmmm… Not exactly a classic! Still, it is rated 6.6 on IMDB! lol

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Carson, did you forget the “Why this script isnt ready for primetime” section or do you just consider it already woven into the review?

    Also, ironically, the spec im in the process of gaining traction with has a protagonist diagnosed with cancer. Of course it bypasses the problem by being a biopic, musical, cancer takes a minor part of the story, and it ends on an upbeat note. I can see how sometimes it.can be a weakness if not done delicately.

  • witwoud

    This gets a double “Worth the Read” from me. I only meant to read a few pages, and ended up reading the whole lot. It’s professionally written (a few typos aside) and entertaining. Sure, it adheres to the time-honoured indie formula of “prickly misanthrope with issues gets a new lease of life when he meets x and together they do y,” but it’s none the worse for that. You could shoot the script as it stands and get a decent film. It’d be the sort of movie that gets 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and is watched by about twelve people worldwide.

    I don’t agree with Carson that there ‘wasn’t enough story.’ Indie films like this are often uneventful. In fact, they get much of their effect from not having too much happening: they take their time. (I’m thinking of films like Lars and the Real Girl and The Station Agent.) And, contrary to Carson, I really liked the scene in which Pete interviews the old lady. I didn’t think it was padding at all; it was entirely relevant to Pete’s journey.

    But yeah, if I were choosing a film to watch after a hard day’s work (if I ever did one) it wouldn’t be about a guy dying of cancer; I’m with the ‘Big C’ on that. Still, this is a solid effort; far better than most amateur scripts.

  • Jonathan Soens

    I’m not sure if I agree that it’s a fruitless endeavor to write a script about a man dying of cancer.

    It seems like it fits one of your other frequent rules/suggestions, Carson, about writing roles that actors will want to play. I think many actors would love to play a guy dying of cancer. Usually they have to settle for doing it in a “House” or “E.R.” or “Grey’s Anatomy” type of situation, but I think lots of them would still be drawn to the chance to spend a whole movie showcasing their acting like that. Of course, writing a character actors want to play doesn’t magically mean the picture will get made. But, still.

    Since you brought up “50/50″, I’ll say that I think that movie benefited from the cancer character being so young. An actor the age of Joseph Gordon-Levitt probably thought he’d have to wait another 15-20 years before he’d get to play a cancer guy. I know it wasn’t so much a creative choice (since it was based on what it was based on), but it was kind of a smart move when you think about it. By writing such a young character dying of cancer, it probably became a more attractive role to actors because most actors that age hadn’t yet aged into “cancer guy” roles.

    • Brian Lastname

      Really good point. I definitely agree that the film benefited in a tremendous way from having JGL leading the charge. With a topic as depressing and serious as cancer, it really needed a youthful spark to balance everything out. JGL has the ability to take on both serious and lighthearted roles (IMO), and I don’t think a guy like Gyllenhaal or Pine — while both fine actors in their own rights — could’ve pulled off the tone necessary to properly tread the fine line between depressionville and entertaining/lighthearted/moving.

      Also a great point re: JGL making a really smart career choice in taking this role. Material like this very rarely finds itself in the hands of someone as young as he, and I see that as both a nod to his level of talent, and his/his team’s ability to recognize that it was indeed a rare and unique opportunity for a young leading man and therefore jumped on it. Really good points, man — I always enjoy hearing what you have to say.

  • edw1225

    Couldn’t a non-marketable script still be good for a contest or writing sample?

    I thought it was OK, with the potential to be very good. I liked the basic idea (I like dark), characters, and dialogue. The story seemed to drift from a dark comedy to a romantic comedy as it went along. I would keep it dark, although that’s my own taste. The overnight death did not feel realistic for a person with cancer. There weren’t any indications (at least that I picked up) his health was that bad yet.

  • James Inez

    This one unfortunately wasn’t for me. Sometimes the characters acted and
    behaved irrationally or unrealistically. I felt like sometimes the
    adults behaved like children. I also felt like there was a lot of
    padding. Scenes that weren’t very strong.

    But there is some good humor sprinkled throughout. And I really like the title.

    I agree with others that say this script is an early career script.

  • AJ

    Since we’re discussing depressing, what would the consensus be on a dark comedy/crime where the stakes begin as the protag will commit suicide if the end goal is not reached? The movie then proceeds with barely any talks of suicide and obstacles come in the bain of The Big Lebowski and Bad Santa (very serious but characters react in a way that is funny).

    • Nathan

      To me it would sound like “if I don’t get my way I’m going to kill myself” – it has a petulant emo feel to it. In which case I would tell them to go do it.

      Plus, your STAKES – the protagonist dying! – are entirely within their own hands.

      I would probably steer clear of it. And if you don’t take my advice I’m going to jump of a bridge.

  • Paul Clarke

    The greatest television show ever made just happens to star a guy dying of cancer.

    Might not work over the shorter time period of a movie. But definitely works over several seasons of a TV show. Even though the cancer is cured during that time.

    • Gregory Mandarano

      Of course that show is ‘breaking’ the rules.

    • Jonathan Soens

      I just re-watched the first episode of “Breaking Bad” again recently, and I have to say: it was a master class in creating sympathy for a character. He’s dying, he has a soul-sucking 2nd job where he’s embarrassed to run into his students, his wife gives him a sad handjob where she’s more interested in her eBay auction than him, and his handicapped kid gets goofed on by other kids when they take him clothes shopping.

      So depressing, but you’ll root for the guy like crazy after that introduction to his life.

  • MichaelWhatling

    Thanks for this. I’ll need all the support I can get when it’s my SP’s turn on Friday.

  • MichaelWhatling

    There’s an old film, early 70s I think, called “Harold and Maude,” which was all about death and dying. But the key there was having two polar-opposite characters: young Harold who was obsessed with death and funerals, and old Maude who was obsessed with living. I see that element in this SP, but I think you have to push the “loving life” character more as an equal balance to the dying character.

  • Eoin O Sullivan

    There are plenty of films that tackle ‘depressing’ subject matter – Schindlers List and My Sister’s Keeper, for example. True, the rules are different for established writers, but if we’re talking about appropriate subject matter, shouldn’t the challenge for a writer, spec or established, be, to make a subject accessible, interesting and entertaining?

  • ThomasGrant

    For what it’s worth, if I were viewing each script this week in the context of “which writer has the most potential,” I’d definitely go with Joe/”In Lieu of Flowers.”

    Keep at it, sir. There are flashes of greatness here. The story/subject matter may not have worked for some people, but the actual writing is very impressive.

    • http://www.dallasobserver.com Joe Tone

      Thanks a lot Thomas. That’s a really nice compliment.