Screenwriting is hard. Every year I’m reminded of that. Most scripts can be divided into two categories. There’s the script that’s trying to tell the same old story as exceptionally as it can (something like Taken or Pretty Woman). And there’s the script that tries to do something different (District 9 or Pulp Fiction). The pitfall with the first option is that you have to nail every single rule in order to get the script right. And the pitfall with the second is that when you have to make up your own rules, which typically results in the script being all wrong. So it’s sort of like a “pick your poison” deal. That said, ten scripts rose above these complications to become my favorites of the year. As has been the case in the past, this lineup reflects my feelings at this specific moment. In other words, the list may not coincide with my Top 25. I wouldn’t say anything truly blew me away in 2011, but a few scripts came close. Let’s take a look.
10) Reunion by Adam Zopf
Premise: At their ten-year reunion, a formerly bullied outcast decides to enact revenge on the cool kids who made his life miserable.
I’d read 60 straight Amateur Friday scripts before Reunion, and while a few of them were decent, there was nothing I would’ve told a producer he had to check out. Reunion was the first script to buck that trend. And what I loved about it most was the character exploration. 99 out of 100 amateur horror writers would’ve chosen to ignore what made their characters tick. Adam was the one who realized that no matter what genre you’re writing, the thing that the audience cares about the most, whether they know it or not, is what’s going on inside of the people. That’s what makes you care about them. And that’s what makes you care about what happens to them. I don’t think this script has been picked up yet so if you’re a producer looking for some great material, check out Reunion now.
9) The Imitation Game by Graham Moore (based on “Alan Turing: The Enigma” By Andrew Hodges)
Premise: The story of how Alan Turing cracked the impossible “Enigma” code, which helped the Allies win World War 2.
It’s rare that I get e-mails from people saying, “You have to read this now.” I get plenty of e-mails saying I should “check this out when you get a chance.” But people so excited they want me to stop what I’m doing *this minute* to read a script? That doesn’t happen often. The Imitation Game is a spec script that proves if you write a compelling main character dealing with an extraordinary situation, your script will sell. That’s because every producer in town knows that if they find a script with a challenging main character, every A-Lister in town will want to play him. I also loved how this biopic was a story, with a goal, stakes, and urgency. Not just a highlight reel of Turing’s life. I didn’t expect to like this one. But boy did I ever.
8) Your Bridesmaid Is A Bitch by Brian Duffield
Premise: After agreeing to groomsman duties at his sister’s wedding, Noah Palmer realizes he may have made the mistake of his life after finding out that the woman who broke his heart is also part of the bridal party.
This is going to be a running theme throughout the Top 10. The reason this script is elevated beyond your run-of-the-mill rom-com is because the characters are so great. Not only do you feel the main character’s pain, insecurity, flaws, fears, and history here, but I loved what Brian did with Anna, the girl Noah is hopelessly still in love with. I think most writers would’ve made her a complete bitch. But Brian makes her cool, makes us understand why Noah fell in love with her. That steered us away from black and white – which is where 99% of romantic comedies exist – and into grey, where the world is way more interesting. It would be easy for us if Anna was a bitch. But because she isn’t, we don’t know what we want. I wish I read more rom-coms that made interesting choices like this.
7) Inherit the Earth by JT Petty (based on the graphic novel by Chris Ryall & Ashley Wood)
Premise: The last human on earth, a young girl, is protected by an army of robots against an even bigger army of zombies.
With the sub-par box office showing of Cowboys and Aliens, it’s looking less and less like this film will ever get made. But the reason I liked it so much was because it actually asked the question, “What would a ten year old girl really be feeling during this experience?” That may seem unimportant. But when you have zombies and robots battling for world supremacy, you need something honest anchoring the story. A little girl who just wants to be loved, who wants a mother and a father – that’s something real people can identify with and understand. For those of you paying attention, that’s four scripts so far, and four examples of me ogling over the character exploration. Have I convinced you to do more character development in your next script yet?
6) The Mighty Flynn by Lorene Scafaria
Premise: After a cruel heartless efficiency expert gets fired, he meets a strange 16 year old girl who unexpectedly helps him turn his life around.
This script is Jerry Maguire for a new generation. People keep saying it will never get made because of Up In The Air, but it’s so damn different from that movie. I mean, does Up In The Air remind YOU of Jerry Maguire? No, because Jerry Maguire is a lot more fun, and that’s the feeling I got from this script. It’s fun. Scafaria, besides being cute and having a cool last name, is really good at mixing drama with comedy. And I love the unexpected pairing she came up with here, not only because it’s different, but because she didn’t take the obvious route and create some sleazy romantic relationship between the older guy and the younger girl. It’s just a unique friendship. The only fix that needs to be made here is the ending and this script could be perfect.
5) Nautica (Riptide) by Richard McBrien
Premise: An investigator tries to solve a murder case on a ship which involves a handyman, a stock broker and the stock broker’s girlfriend, which won’t be easy since each suspect has a different version of the story.
This script has had a long journey and a lot of close calls and for whatever reason, still hasn’t been made. This is Dead Calm but with a more complicated backstory. There have obviously been a fair share of Rashamon-inspired films, but this is one of the few that lives up to the technique. I remember going into this with no idea what it was then coming out exhilarated after all the twists and turns. The characters here are interesting. The story is interesting. I can’t see anyone not wanting to be involved with this project. So let’s boot this out of development hell already.
4) How It Ends by Brooks McLaren
Premise: A man must race across the US to save his pregnant wife as the apocalypse rains down around him.
Here I am, trumpeting the importance of character development for six straight entries, yet my number 4 script barely peeks beneath the surface of its characters. I think that’s what turned people off and made them wonder why I ranked it so high on my Top 25. Commenter JakeMLB responded to this critique best. Brooks decided to take a realistic approach to his story. He wanted to put you right there in the action, attempting to mirror how it would really be. When you take that approach, an artificially constructed character flaw can feel forced and artificial. For example, it’s okay for Han Solo to finally overcome his flaw of being selfish at the end of Star Wars. But had we done the same with Will, it starts feeling like a Hollywood movie as opposed to a real situation. It’s a fine line and I almost always lean towards creating a flaw, but in this rare case, it worked. Not to mention, this is about as intense a script as you’ll read all year.
3) When The Streetlights Go On by Chris Hutton & Eddie O’Keefe
Premise: (from Black List) In the early 1980s, a town suffers through the aftermath of a brutal murder of a high school girl and a teacher.
Let the controversy continue! “Streetlights” inspired some of the more intense debate over a script’s quality as we’ve had all year. Some people were moved by it. And some people wanted to move it into their toilet. Count me among the former. I’m a big believer in this script and more than a week after reading it, I’m still moved by its haunting tone and chilling ending. At the beginning of this article I talked about the two types of scripts you can write, the predictable one and the chance-taking one. “Streetlights” takes chances almost every step of the way. An ongoing voice-over. Lack of a clear protagonist. A period piece. A love story that doesn’t emerge until the final act. And yet, somehow, it all comes together. If anyone can tell me how these guys are only 21 years old, I’d love to know.
2) Seeking A Friend At The End Of The World (no link)
Premise: As a life ending asteroid shoots towards Earth, a lonely man befriends a strange woman and the two embark on a road trip to say their goodbyes to their loved ones.
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
This is another one that just stayed with me. I love Scafaria’s knack for going quirky, yet still making her choices relevant to the story. For example, one might complain that Keira Knightly’s character’s sleep issues (the girl can sleep through the world falling apart) are a bit on the “Ooh, look how different I can make this character” side. Yet her sleep issues turn out to be a big set up for a later payoff during the climax. On top of this, I’m just a sucker for stories where two misunderstood people find each other. I never reviewed this script on the site but Scafaria, in her directing debut, finished shooting it earlier this year, so we should get a trailer soon.
1) After Hailey by Scott Frank (based on the novel by Johnathan Tropper)
Premise: After a newlywed war photographer’s wife dies, he must decide whether to help out her troubled son from a previous marriage or move on and start a new life.
What can you say about After Hailey? It’s one of those scripts where every character is perfectly written. It walks that inexact line between comedy and drama exceptionally. It’s got a great central unresolved relationship at its core, and one we’re not used to seeing – a man stuck with parenting a stepson he barely knows after his wife dies. I know I talk a lot about “heart” on this site and maybe I don’t explain it all that well. But if you want to know what heart reads like, check out this script. It just makes you feel good inside and it tackles a lot of identifiable situations we all deal with in our everyday lives, but in an amusing and heartwarming way.
Now that 2011 is over, I want to set a personal challenge to all of Scriptshadow Nation: Let’s dominate this list next year. We got one on the list. Let’s try for 3 or 4 in 2012. The things I preach on Scriptshadow aren’t revolutionary. But I believe that the people who follow this site understand the essentials of storytelling way better than the people who don’t. So let’s do this. Get out there and start writing. Create something great. I’ll be here to celebrate it when you’re finished.