Genre: Black Comedy/Drama
Premise: When a 13-year-old social misfit hacks into the financial life of his reclusive 70 year old neighbor and finds she’s being short-changed at her home office job, the two embark on an epic journey to seek justice from the shady for-profit “university” that’s been cheating her for decades.
Why You Should Read: The short version? Lili & Will is dark and funny and has loads of heart, with two very cool parts for an “actress of a certain age,” and pretty much any kid from “Stranger things.” The enhanced version? I’ve been working on this thing for years, and even though lots of people said they loved it, no one ever loved it enough to open a checkbook. At first I shrugged this off to “Nobody wants to make a POKER movie.” Yes, for years this script was about two characters on their way to a poker tournament, and nothing at all like the logline above. But then I got a NOTE I never expected — that my characters were GREAT, but they were drowning in technical b.s. about card playing that bogged everything down. I was DEVASTATED by this, knowing I would have to change pretty much EVERYTHING. But for the first time in my life, I buckled down, took the note, and actually did the work. NEW third act. NEW plot. NEW character arcs. NEW pretty much everything. Anyway, this is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
Writer: Jeff Stein
Details: 110 pages
I’ve read a few of Jeff’s scripts now and whenever I do, I think, “Man this guy has talent. Not only that, but he understands the craft.” Some writers have one, some have the other, but rarely do writers have both. And that’s my conundrum with Jeff. I know he has what it takes. Getting so many votes on this script proves what I’ve always believed. But there’s something in his writing that’s holding him back. And it’s not easy to figure out what.
After reading Lili & Will, I think I have an idea. At some point in his scripts, Jeff makes one major choice that sends his script into Troublesville. And it’s hard to come back from a bad choice. If he can eliminate that mistake, he can thrive. Let’s take a look at his latest!
Lili & Will follows 13 year-old Will, a middle-school nerd who has the unfortunate honor of living with a single mother who strips for a living. Will hopes that one day his mom can quit so they can have a normal life. But things seem to be getting worse, not better. His mom books a “Strip Tour” where she’ll be impersonating a once-famous Playboy Bunny. This should give them some breathing room financially, but it leaves Will alone for the summer.
Concerned, his mom asks the old reclusive weirdo next door, Lili, if she’ll keep an eye on her son. Lili says no thanks. Meanwhile, Will looks into online poker in the hopes of winning big so his mom never has to strip again. He needs a fake ID to sign up, which leads him to Lili. But after sneaking through her computer, he finds out she’s being ripped off by her employer, one of those spammy pyramid schemes that has its “employees” mail thousands of letters to people, paying them fractions of a cent for each one.
When Will tells Lili about the scam, she agrees to drive with him to the company headquarters and shake the CEO down. That’s the plan anyway. Neither Will or Lili know how to drive. They manage though, and do so in style, as it turns out Lily still has her dead brother’s never-driven Roadster.
This oil & water team come from two completely different sides of reality, but develop an operating friendship along the way. Unfortunately, Lili falls ill with a mysterious ailment and must go in for emergency surgery. It’s only when Lili’s life is in danger that Will realizes just how good of a friend she is. But it may be too late for that. Then again, it may not.
The thing I love so much about this script is the pairing. One of the tips I give out when it comes to two-handers is to make sure there’s conflict between the characters. We’re going to be with these two the whole movie so they better not be boring and agreeable the whole time. But a tip I should promote more is to make sure the pairing is INTERESTING. Give us two unique characters. Two people we’ve never seen together before. Or two people so different we have no idea what to expect when they’re thrown together. That’s Lili & Will for you, and it’s the script’s biggest strength.
The script’s got a pretty sweet plot, too. I like that Will initially tries to take advantage of Lili, only to find out that she’s being scammed, and then decides to help her instead. I love that it’s based around one of these pyramid schemes. Everybody hates pyramid schemes so you’ve got the audience 100% on your side from the get-go. It reminded me a bit of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, but with a better concept, since our heroes’ goal was one of justice.
However, once we get on the road, the script hits some rocky patches. The scenes feel rushed, many of them in a “blink and you miss them” manner, as opposed to Jeff stopping, figuring out what the scene is about, and milking everything he can out of the scene. For example, two threatening thugs come up to buy Lili’s car. This scene could’ve easily been 5 pages as we built up the tension behind these guys and whether they were going to do something bad to get the car. Instead it’s 6 lines of dialogue and we’re on to the next scene. This happened a lot.
Compare that to another “car buying” scene, the one in Psycho, where Marion goes to buy a car. But instead of 6 lines, we get a drawn out suspenseful purchase with a cop from across the street watching her every move. I needed the scenes to breathe in Lili and Will, especially because the characters were so good to begin with. Both were perfectly capable of sitting in scenes and talking for a long time.
In regards to the “choices” comment I made, we encounter that problem late in the script. We finally get to the company. They’re getting all jazzed up to go in there and take these scammers down. And ten seconds into a conversation with the manager, Will EXCUSES HIMSELF TO GO THE BATHROOM???? It made absolutely zero sense, both for the story and for the character. This is Will. He’s the “Get it Done” guy. And he leaves during the climactic showdown with the corporate bully? Come on!! That simply cannot happen.
Unfortunately, the script never recovers after this scene. We ditch the more interesting plot that’s been set up for another “We’ll get our money another way” sequence at a local casino. If I were Jeff, I would stick with the taking down the pyramid company plot. That’s where the audience is going to find its satisfaction. But there’s a bigger issue here. Why did Jeff make this choice? Because it’s choices like these that can send a solid script off onto a snowy unmarked road. It feels a bit like an ADD choice – this need to come up with something different, to constantly switch things up, keep giving the audience something new.
You’ve come up with a good plot. TRUST IT. Believe in what you’ve created and stick with it to the end. Nebraska, about a man who begrudgingly drives his elderly father to a lottery office to pick up his “winnings,” doesn’t end with some Rodeo heist that had nothing to do with the original story. It sticks with what we’ve set up.
I really really really want Jeff to succeed, man. He cares so much about this craft. He cares so much about getting better. I mean, “Vlad the Inhaler?” the Russian thug with asthma? Does it get any more genius than that? Or this exchange after Lili and Will first meet – LILI: “Er, would you care to come in for a cup of coffee?” WILL “Well, it’s three in the morning and I’m a kid, but sure.” I read that line five times and laughed harder each time. There are a lot of these genius nuggets scattered throughout Lili & Will. So do me a favor; if you’ve read the script, give Jeff your thoughts on anything you believe could make it, and Jeff, better. Thanks. And thanks to Jeff for letting us read his script!
Script link: Lili & Will
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Treat each scene like a script. Give it your all. You have to make each scene its own little great thing. If you’re writing a bunch of scene-fragments? – stuff that bridges the gap between writing the previous scene and that next scene you REALLY want to write, you’re leaving a lot of dead space in your screenplay.
What I learned 2: If you ever rush though anything in a script, we’ll know. That’s not something you can hide.
One of the more common story setups is the “Group of People Gets Lost In the Woods” scenario, and it’s not surprising why. It fits into a clear genre (Horror), it’s marketable (all horror is), it’s cheap to shoot (all you need is actors and a camera), and there’s something universally scary about getting lost that all audiences can relate to.
The problem is that nearly every one of these scripts is bad. It’s not surprising why. The Lost in a Forest setup is what I call a “45 page idea.” Since there’s only so much you can do walking through a forest (How many times can two characters argue about what to do next?), you inevitably run out of scenes by page 45. That’s the trap of this sub-genre. It looks so easy but it’s deceptively hard to pull off.
The Ritual is one of the few movies to do it. The reason for that you’ll hear from most outlets is the creature design. Indeed, the creature is awesome, unlike anything you’ve seen before. I love how they pull a Jaws, as well, holding it off until the very end of the movie. If you’re a creature geek, you’ll love The Ritual. But that’s not why this movie is so great. It’s great because of a single scene.
For those who don’t have access to Netflix, The Ritual follows four middle-aged friends who hike the Swedish mountains in honor of their friend who was killed in a violent convenience store attack during a robbery. When one of the friends gets injured on the trail, they try to take a short cut through the forest. And that’s where the trouble begins.
Simple premise, right? So why was this version of “Group Gets Lost in a Forest” so much better than the hundreds of others that are so achingly boring?
The second scene of the movie.
Our five friends are at a bar, deciding what their next vacation spot is going to be. There’s Luke, our introspective hero, Hutch, the alpha male of the group, Dom, the chubby dude who always complains, Phil, the anxious one, and Robert, the fun-loving best friend to them all.
After the bar, Luke and Robert head inside a convenience store to grab some beer for the after party while the others wait outside. As they joke around, they glance over to see that the checkout girl is on the floor, bleeding. We see the back door open and two thugs emerge. Robert, who’s closest to them, is frozen, while Luke, due to the angle at which he’s standing, can’t be seen, so he quickly hides at the back of the aisle.
What happens next is what you expect. The thugs demand money and jewelry from Robert, who obliges until he gets to his wedding ring, which he refuses to part with. All this time, Luke is sitting there. These men don’t have guns. He can go help his friend. But he chooses to stay there. The situation escalates and the thugs bash Robert over the head with a bar, killing him.
It’s from there that we cut to the mountain, six months later. Like I said, Dom injures his leg, forcing the group into the forest in pursuit of a short cut, where they start seeing markings on the trees as well as scattered cabins that seem to have been inhabited by people who worship a creature. Before long, they start hearing the creature stalking them. And it picks them off one by one.
Why was this convenience store scene so important?
To understand that, you have to understand what this movie looks like WITHOUT THE SCENE. And I say that because I’ve read TONS of scripts with this setup that didn’t have this scene or a scene like it. And they almost always sucked. Instead of witnessing the traumatic event ourselves, we hear it alluded to in retrospect, we see it in the characters’ eyes, and occasionally hear it in their monologues. Every once in awhile, the writing is so good and the actors’ performances so strong that they take us back to these traumatic moments without having to see them. But usually, since we didn’t see it with our own eyes, we feel nothing for that person or how it’s affected our characters.
What’s that old saying? A picture is worth a thousand words? This may be the world’s best example of that.
The scene in the convenience store is harrowing. It’s shot in a gritty realistic style to ensure it stays with us. That can’t be discounted. But even if we only focus on the script, it’s a great choice because the scene informs EVERYTHING that happens throughout the rest of the film.
For starters, our main character’s flaw is established. He’s a coward. We see him battling this in every single scene. He hates himself. He can’t live that day down. He knows that the reason they’re even in this mess to begin with is because he was too afraid to save his friend. Having a main character not just going through an inner conflict throughout the movie, but one that actually feels authentic and real, turns a basic horror premise into something much deeper.
Second, it affects all the relationships in the movie. Luke’s struggle isn’t just that he was cowardly and didn’t save his friend. It’s that his friends don’t know the truth. All they know is that he was lucky to escape. This means that Luke is also battling the fact that he’s living a lie. That his own friends don’t know he’s responsible for the death of their friend. This informs almost every conversation in the movie. You can see the guilt in his eyes, the regret, the anger at keeping his secret. When you hear criticisms about your dialogue that, ‘there’s no subtext,’ this is one way to create subtext. No conversation here is solely about what’s happening on the surface. There’s always another audio track playing underneath.
But where things get really fun is the creature. Clearly, the creature is used as a symbol of fear. We’re not talking about Pumpkinhead or Freddy here, empty vessels designed for cheap thrills that have no connection to the people they’re stalking. We know that if Luke can defeat this monster, he’ll finally overcome his flaw – his cowardice. That raises the personal stakes of the hero and makes us way more invested than we’d usually be. We want to see Luke stand up to this thing and redeem himself!
Finally, that scene allows us to create scares that are ORGANIC to the story. Pay attention because this is important, guys. What’s the worst kind of scare? An empty jump scare, right? A guy gets out of his tent at night, goes to take a leak, hears something. Then something jumps out of nowhere and attacks him – FLASH – he’s back in his tent. It was just a nightmare! Zoinks!
By setting your movie up with a scene this powerful, you can give us scares that are connected to the story. Some of my favorite scenes were Luke waking up at night, leaving his tent, only to find himself in a hybrid convenience-store-forest setting. There Robert was again, before the thugs kill him. Luke has a chance to redeem himself. But once again, his best friend is slaughtered and – FLASH – he’s right back in the tent. It was a nightmare. You tell me which one of those scares is more effective.
One scene – ONE SCENE – set this all up.
The lesson today isn’t that you should write a horror movie where someone gets killed in the beginning. That’s not what I’m saying. The lesson is that when you have a simple plot such as people getting lost in a forest, you should be utilizing big moments in your first act that affect your main character and as many supporting characters as possible. This will allow there to be something going on beneath the surface throughout every moment of your movie. That will both take the pressure off your plot and give you more places to go, since you’ll be exploring what’s going on INSIDE of your characters as well as outside.
Watch “The Ritual” today if you have Netflix. It’s the first good movie Netflix has ever made. More importantly, tomorrow’s article will be about the movie. We’re going to talk about how a single scene can make a screenplay.
Premise: In an unraveling that rivals Taxi Driver, a young woman who moderates X-rated content on a social media platform, becomes unhinged and starts taking her moderation into the real world.
About: Today’s script finished number 15 on last year’s Black List. While this is the writer’s first big break in the screenwriting world, he’s worked in the art department on numerous films, including Stephen Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.”
Writer: Zach Baylin
Details: 114 pages
Today’s script is a mixed bag but it’s the good kind of mixed bag. The kind that has raisins and M&Ms in it. If I was teaching a screenwriting class and all of you were sitting in front of me, I’d tell you to read this script because it’s the kind of script that can get you noticed, get passed around, and even sell.
How does it achieve all these things? For starters it’s a simple premise. Simple premise = easy read. Girl starts taking crime into her own hands. Have we seen that before? Yes. But never quite like this is. And that’s an important detail. Hollywood doesn’t mind if you give them “the same” as long as it’s “not quite the same.”
It’s also a CURRENT premise. Writing about something current is always a gamble. Current passes by quickly. Ask anyone who wrote that AOL instant messenger spec. However, “current” allows you to write something that people haven’t seen before. When you’re competing against 100 years of movies, fresh subject matter is invaluable. So sometimes it’s worth the risk.
But what I really like about this script is how the writer approached it. He approached it in a way that allowed him to write big and strong – to charge through the description and dialogue confidently. Not every type of script allows you to write this way. It’s hard to write The Shawshank Redemption with blazing confidence. That script requires a more deliberate pace.
By choosing to move Brie through the narrative at breakneck speed, it allows for a strong consistent writing style, and that has an effect on the reader. It certainly had an effect on me. I found myself almost intimidated by some of the passages and dialogue. Here’s Brie, conveying why her job is so difficult…
“The real problem is – not the P.C. Free speech, open airwaves of it – it’s that there is so goddamn much of it. So much hate. And violence. And pain. And chances are, if you haven’t seen it, it’s because I saw it for you.”
My slurping doesn’t stop there. I love the idea of doing a female Taxi Driver. In this world of randomly placing women in male roles because it gets an immediate green light, changing Travis Bickle into a woman is actually quite clever. Because we’re not used to seeing unhinged female psychopaths, there’s a jarring quality to the unraveling that almost seems rote when you see it happen to a guy these days. This gives the script a hell of a fresh feel.
“Come As You Are” introduces us to Brie Salter, a 28 year old All-American girl who not only wants to change the world, but has actually lived the world. After losing her parents, she joined the army and spent some time in Afghanistan. Now, years later, she lives in the big city and has an amazing boyfriend, who’s just gotten her an interview at one of the biggest social media companies (which remains unnamed) in the world.
George, her interviewer, hires her to work in Moderation, the kind of branch Brie assumes is innocent and easy. But as soon as she’s ushered into the basement (“Brie follows Joy down a staircase like Clarice trailing Chilton into Lecter’s lair”) she learns that it’s anything but.
Brie takes us through the process of moderation, which is mostly straightforward. You see a kid violently bullying another kid, you delete it. But sometimes it gets tricky. A mother videotapes her 3 year old daughter, who happens to be naked, swimming, and now you have to make judgement calls on if people are going to be offended.
Seeing smut and shit and degradation and violence can be managed if it’s taken in small doses. But what happens when that’s all you watch? All day? Every day? It starts to have an effect on you. And soon, Brie wants to fight back. When a girl wants to commit suicide after being bullied but the company doesn’t do anything about it, Brie reaches out to the girl and saves her life.
She then asks, “What else can I do?” She begins using the powerful digital tools at her disposal to hunt down the filth who are posting all this garbage then exposing them to their communities and their schools and their local police departments. Brie becomes empowered every time she takes down a new pedophile.
But as you’d expect, this reckless behavior begins to skew her perception of reality – absolute power corrupts absolutely – and we get the sense it’s only a matter of time before Brie goes too far. When she becomes obsessed with a provocative Ann Coulter like figure, we know that that shit ain’t gonna end with a 1-800-Flowers bouquet and an apology for the misunderstanding.
Shall we continue the love? Actually, while I did love a lot of this script, I had my problems with it as well, the biggest of which is that it starts off so smart, but ends up so silly. Brie starts getting so crazy, it becomes hard to take her seriously. By the end of this movie, she’s a caricature. I mean, she’s threatening the lives of grade-schoolers.
I’m guessing Baylin had trouble finding the balance – figuring out how far he could go. In his defense, our mopey lead character in Taxi Driver ends up with an outrageous haircut. But Travis Bickle always remained the same character. And the level of Brie’s craziness borders on parody.
I was so impressed by that early confidence and that great first act setup, I was hoping for the same sophistication all the way through. Once things single-mindedly became, “Take down all evil white men,” anything that was once below the surface had been drilled and fracked, then scattered on the New York City streets.
With that said, I do believe Baylin has a message with this script and it’s a powerful one. The images and the videos and the constant negativity we view on our computer screens every day is having an effect on us, and that effect is happening so gradually that we don’t realize how serious it is. We will one day. But maybe, by then, it will be too late.
Time to de-bookmark Pornhub?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Something I talk a lot about is “specificity.” Your writing can’t be general. It needs to be specific. The problem with screenwriting is you also have to be sparse. And some writers mistake that for meaning they shouldn’t add detail at all. You should definitely add detail (or “specificity”); you just want to pick your spots. When you believe a detail or a moment is important, describe it for us in specific terms. When Brie shows up for her first day at work, we get this…
INT. SAFETY NET HALLWAY – MORNING
The walls lined with INSPIRATIONAL POSTERS designed like Nike Ads, sporting Cultish platitudes: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” “Proceed and be Bold.” Brie eyes them with suspicion as they pass.
You could’ve easily written something general here like, “The walls are lined with the usual corporate bullshit.” But because this location is such an important part of the story, Baylin wanted to give you a specific vision of it.
Genre: TV Pilot – 1 Hour Drama
Premise: After a high school senior becomes a hero for stopping a school shooting, he decides to write a book about it.
About: This show is debuting on Hulu, which continues to be interested in creating solid content (Handmaiden’s Tale, Casual, the Stephen King Universe). There are rumors that Disney could buy Hulu at some point, which would turn the streaming service into a legitimate Netflix competitor. Aaron Zelman has written on such shows as The Killing and Damages. He created the show, Resurrection, about deceased town-members returning to their loved ones, which lasted a season on ABC.
Writer: Aaron Zelman
Details: 64 pages
A couple of times a week I’ll get an e-mail from someone saying, “Carson, why don’t you review more pilots??” There are a couple of reasons. The first is that people don’t seem as interested in discussing them. The second is I’m not happy with the current TV landscape. It’s reached a stage where there’s way more content than there is talent, and while that’s great for writing jobs, it’s not great for audiences. The only must-see show is Game of Thrones. An argument can be made for Stranger Things as well. But from there the drop-off is steep.
TV has settled into this place where there are a ton of shows between “okay” and “good,” but none between “very good” and “great.” And I don’t know how that changes. It seems like networks and streaming services are way more interested in quantity than quality, and even if they weren’t, it’s not like they have a choice. The talent is spread so thin that they’re being forced to gamble on low-level writers.
A few outlets seem to be recognizing this lemmings-like charge towards averageness and realize if they’re going to make TV “must watch” again, they need to go bigger. Indeed, we may be on the horizon of the “Prestige Television Era.” Lord of the Rings from Amazon. MULTIPLE Star Wars TV shows from Disney’s upcoming streaming service. The war will start to look a lot like the feature world, where to get real eyeballs, you’ll need to beast mode your productions. It’s only a matter of time before we hit the first 300 million dollar television series.
Until then, we’re hoping that some writer out there can come up with the next diamond in the rough. Who’s got the next Breaking Bad or Lost sitting in their “Future Ideas” folder? Might that be today’s writer, Aaron Zelman? Oh God, I hope so. Let’s check out his pilot and find out.
The year is 1999 and 17 year-old Steve Newman is a hero. He’s saved the school from dozens of people getting shot and killed when he took down his school-shooter friend, JR, a Columbian immigrant who just moved into town. Steve is being asked to write a book about his heroism with a big-shot publisher.
The pilot covers Steve pitching his idea for the book, which allows us to jump back in time and cover the months leading up to the thwarted shooting. It’s through this flashback format that we meet our main characters. There’s Steve, whose family has recently moved to the wrong side of the tracks due to financial troubles. There’s JR, whose family came here from Columbia and whose mother was a famous singer there. There’s Roxanne, JR’s provocative sister. And then there’s Devon, a sex-obsessed potty-mouth who loves getting into trouble.
I’ll be honest. Nothing happens during the flashbacks. I kept waiting for stuff to happen. But, for the most part, we’d get a bunch of dissociated scenes that vaguely set up our characters. For example, Steve, JR and Devon play a cops and robbers like game with BB guns, which was a little confusing since I thought they were teenagers.
Where the script should’ve been building towards the mystery of what happened that fateful day, it instead kept spinning its wheels. It seemed like there were several of the exact same scenes where Roxanne would flirt with Steve and Steve would run away, scared. At a certain point, I became suspicious. ‘Why isn’t anything happening?’ I asked. And then the answer arrived. I won’t spoil it. But let’s just say there was a big twist at the end.
I say “and then the answer arrived” because I see this all the time with twist endings. Writers fall in love with their twist so much that they don’t care about the rest of the script. But now more than ever, with peoples’ attention spans at an all time low, you can’t afford to go even five minutes without keeping your audience entertained. You need to always have that next mystery, that next line of suspense, that next cliffhanger, that next inevitable confrontation, so that the viewer doesn’t turn to the next show. Cause as we’ve established, there are more “next shows” today than ever.
My rule with big final twists is: Make sure the rest of the story stands on its own without the twist.
In addition to twist issues, I had trouble figuring out what this show was. My first inclination was that it was Hulu’s answer to 13 Reasons Why. It has some similarities to that show. High school. A flashback structure. A devastating event. But it’s not as clever as that show. The mystery 13 Reasons Why sets up is an intriguing one. And the tapes serve as ideal lines of suspense in each episode. This feels clunkier. There’s no device that adds an eloquent structure to each episode.
And like I said, there’s no mystery to the pilot. Without that “whodunnit” question pushing the narrative, we’re not even sure why we’re hanging out with these kids. What exactly is it that the publisher wanted to know from Steve that placed us in this flashback? That’s something that needs to be dead clear and it isn’t. We don’t flash back to the Titanic because it’s time to tell the story of Jack and Rose. We flash back because the treasure hunter needs to find out where the diamond is.
I’m also confused as to how this is going to last. One of the key differences between pilots and features is that the number of important characters in a pilot is going to be higher. You need more characters because you have a lot more time in a TV show and if you only spend that time with three or four characters, we’re going to know everything we need to know about those characters before the end of the first season. The more people there are to explore, the more logical it is that we need an actual TV series to explore them. How many key characters were there in 13 Reasons Why? I think a dozen? Here we have Steve, Roxanne, JR, and Devon and that’s it, unless you count the parents. I couldn’t even tell you what these guys will be doing in episode 3 with a story this thin, much less episode 10.
Personally, I would’ve found this pilot more interesting if it was set in the present day (2018, not 1999) with our high school kids all grown up. You could even use the same framing device, with one of the characters deciding to write a book about the incident. The big twist (SPOILER ALERT) in Crash and Burn is that it was actually Steve who committed the shootings, not JR. You could do something similar, where you jump back and forth between these peoples’ adult lives, and them as children, and over time piece together the real story behind what happened the day of the shooting. That has more gravitas than a kid a few months removed from a school shooting writing a book about it.
Then again, even the subject matter here feels dated. I wish the project the best but I’m having trouble getting excited about it.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you want to break into TV, I’d start thinking about prestige shows. I see them as the next big thing. Granted, they’re going to start off making these shows with high profile IP like Lord of the Rings, but if those shows do well, they’ll start taking chances on original material.
Premise: A circus family attempts to keep its lucrative business going by utilizing a dark and horrifying secret.
About: Katherine Dunn, the author of the 1989 breakout novel, Geek Love, was a single mother working three jobs when her novel became an unexpected best seller. The Portland-based writer was, all of a sudden, thrust into the position of the city’s most recognizable female author. Portland author Rene Denfeld said of her: “She believed the job of a writer is to tell the truth—not the truth that Aunt Mabel wants to hear, not the truth that will sell books. She always said she was waiting for a male writer to write a memoir that was not about all the women he’d slept with, but about having a problem with premature ejaculation.” Geek Love is said to have inspired many artists, including Terry Gilliam and Kurt Cobain. Magician and actor Harry Anderson optioned the book for film rights and wrote this script, which still hasn’t been made.
Writer: Harry Anderson (based on the novel by Katherine Dunn)
Details: 107 pages – 1990 draft
Haven’t you heard? Circuses are all the rage. The Greatest Showman continues to have a strong hold at the box office, finishing in the Top 5 for the 7th weekend in a row. Sounds like Hollywood might be interested in a new circus project. Make no mistake. The misleadingly-titled “Geek Love” doesn’t have any dance numbers. But it does have darkness, secrets, and kids who swear a lot.
I love that truth statement Dunn uses above. As our society moves in a direction where saying anything that doesn’t tow the company line gets you beaten up on social media, it’s become harder for writers to be brave and tell the truth. So what we get instead is a bunch of safe vanilla b.s. with whip cream and cherries on top. The more I read, the more I realize that TRUTH is the secret ingredient that lights up a screenplay. When characters say and do things that REALLY HAPPEN in life, it gives the script an authenticity that can’t be matched.
Which is an odd way to begin this review, since Geek Love is about a freak show circus family. But it’s not so much the situation that’s truthful as it is the characters.
Geek Love introduces us to 40 year-old Oly, a humpback dwarf. Don’t feel sorry for Oly, though. She’s a tough woman who’s managed to become a successful DJ at a local radio station. After we observe her daily routine, we cut back to 30 years ago where we meet the Binewski family and their circus company.
There’s Al, the father, Lil, the mother. There’s Arty, a little boy with flippers for hands and feet. And then there’s Elly and and Iphy, Siamese twins. Arty and Elly and Iphy are the show’s main attractions, while Oly is the operations manager. Her deformity, you see, isn’t flashy enough to make an act out of. She’s just… ugly.
The family, as you’d expect, is an eclectic group. Al seems like a cool guy. Lil is sweet as can be. But Arty is pure evil, the devil incarnate, and has plans to kill off his parents so he can take over the business. Elly and Iphy hate Arty, and the three are always bickering. And when I say bickering, I mean there isn’t a curse word that isn’t used in this story.
When Lil becomes pregnant with another child, we learn the family’s dark secret. Al, you see, is feeding his wife insecticide. Why? Because the more poison his wife ingests, the more likely it is that she’ll have a deformed child, which means one more performer for the show! Al experiments with each pregnancy, having his wife take in a variety of poisonous artificial supplements. And what happens if the child is born normal? I don’t want to say because I don’t think you can take it.
When the new child is finally born – Chick – they realize he’s unlike any of the other children. As in, he has the power to levitate people and heal things. He also ages at a rapid rate, quickly catching up to the other kids. Chick’s powers allow Al to add new acts that he never could’ve dreamed of. But this new attention angers Arty, who sees his star fading.
Suffice it to say, you can only poison your family to create deformed children to work in your circus for so long before it backfires. And boy does it backfire. The only one who makes it out of the mayhem in one piece is Oly, who has some business to settle in the present day before she, too, joins that great big circus in the sky.
Is it possible to write a plotless script that’s entertaining?
That’s the question Geek Love poses (unknowingly).
And the answer is yes. But it’s a complicated yes. I only experience it every so often and it’s always for the same reason – the writer has such a unique voice that that voice overpowers the absence of plot. You read because everything is so fresh and different. Not because you’re trying to find out if the main character’s daughter will be saved.
So I say to all you plot haterz, go ahead and write something without a 3-act structure or GSU… but only if you’ve been told you have a voice unlike any other writer. You are Charlie Kaufman. You are Quentin Tarantino. You are Kurt Vonnegut. You are Katherine Dunn. Otherwise, I would stick to the basics.
With that said, Harry Anderson, the writer who adapted this, missed an opportunity to build a plot into the story. If you have a movie that takes place in the past, you can give it a “plot” by introducing a present-day storyline with a mystery. You then occasionally cut back to that present day mystery throughout the movie. This allows you to be weird and formless in the past. But the audience still feels like there’s a purpose to everything since there’s that unanswered question in the present.
Here, Anderson starts the story with Oly in the present, secretly obsessing over a strange woman who lives near her. It’s intriguing, but it’s completely abandoned once we jump back in time. It’s only at the end of the screenplay that we revisit the mystery, which does have a nice payoff, but because it’s been so long since the setup, we don’t care.
Anderson should’ve made this mystery storyline a bigger deal, cutting back to it throughout the screenplay. Instead he adds an unrelated present-day storyline that was kind of interesting, but because it didn’t have anything to do with the first one, it made the present-day stuff feel just as random as the past.
Luckily, JUST ENOUGH happens every 20 pages in the past that you keep hanging on. It was the revelation that Al poisons his wife to get freaks for his business that kept me reading a little longer. Then the emergence of Telekinesis Baby that kept me a little longer. Before I knew it, I was invested in all of the characters. They were all so weird and interesting, I had to find out what their fates were.
And that advice Dunn gives about truth is on full display in this story. Parents take advantage of their children in unimaginable ways. We just saw it with basement dungeon family. So as uncomfortable as the Binewski secret is, there’s truth in there. That’s why this book sticks out. And probably why people are afraid to make it into a movie. It’s too close for comfort.
I don’t know if I Geek Loved this. But I Geek Liked it. It’s unlike any script I’ve ever read.
Script link: Geek Love
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: (re: truth) Neil Strauss, who wrote The Game, a book about sleeping with a bunch of women, uses the book to chronicle his failures in seduction as well, such as the only time he’d ever had a chance with a Playboy model, but couldn’t get an erection due to performance anxiety. The book went on to become an enormous best seller. I wonder if Strauss knew that Katherine Dunn had predicted his success just ten years prior!