A busy day here in Scriptshadowville, a wondrous place where In and Out burgers grow on trees and fidget spinners never stop spinning. That means no time for a review. But a little time for my thoughts on the weekend.
I’ll start with Transformers, a franchise which represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood. The Transformers films cater not to the lowest common denominator, but to the decimal numbers that have been cut off from that denominator. The writing in these movies is atrocious and reeks of not a single person on the production staff caring about the final product. And the movies themselves don’t even get the main Transformers component right – the effects for the transformation themselves.
So I possess a tiny bit of joy from hearing that this is the lowest Transformers opening ever. Could it be that we’re finally done with this franchise? It’s the latest in a trend of aging franchises studios refuse to bury (Alien, Pirates, Bourne, Star Trek). The problem is, the global box office is screwing this all up. It’s giving life to these franchises which so clearly deserve to have their plug pulled.
China is the biggest issue, as they’ll see anything! All this time I thought China was putting their money into top secret military defense projects. It turns out it was all going towards developing a bar that could exist below sea level. That bar is the very reason we’re threatened with another possible Transformers movie.
I have a compromise. I actually loved Transformers growing up. So maybe there’s a way we can both be happy, since this franchise, nor my hate for it, is going away.
Here’s what I propose. Why not create an offshoot franchise for more discerning Transformers audience members? Make Transformers actually cool. Don’t stop making the main movies. But add 60-70 million dollar productions where you take more chances, like what James Mangold did with Logan. Smaller, cheaper, but more adult, the kind of thing Neil Blompkamp might have done before he started writing his own scripts. How can it hurt? It might actually infuse this bastard of a franchise with life. Cause if they keep vomiting out these dick and fart joke Transformers movies, the well we built so deep that it’s reached China is finally going to dry up.
The other thing I wanted to discuss today exists, ironically, on the other end of the screenwriting spectrum. During this weekend’s Amateur Offerings discussion an interesting question popped up about the right of the writer to defend his work. One young ambitious screenwriter had submitted a quasi-experimental screenplay and whenever anyone had an opinion about it, he would defend his choices. Is this a good thing for a writer to do? In Amateur Offerings, with friends, in production meetings, in life?
Here’s what I’ve found. The young writer stage (under 27) is the period in a writer’s life where there’s the biggest gap between what he thinks he knows and what he actually knows. It’s not the writer’s fault. Hell, one of the wonderful things about being a young screenwriter is believing that you know it all, that you’ve figured out a way to build a better wheel, and drawing upon that belief to try new exciting things.
But these choices universally come at the expense of form and structure. The writer believes that because he did that unique thing on page 30, you owe him the next 30 pages of rambling before he does that next unique thing. In short, he wants praise for being occasionally brave and interesting.
The best thing young screenwriters can do is drop the dogged belief that they know better than everyone else and LISTEN. It doesn’t mean you have to implement what you hear. But at least LISTEN. Because if you doggedly charge forth on an endless experimental march without even trying to understand why the majority of the people who read your stuff aren’t responding to it, then you’re going to double, triple, even quadruple your development time. And the next thing you know you’re 30 years old before you’ve properly learned basic screenwriting mechanics, such as the 3-Act Structure.
Save your passionate defense for later in life, when you’re in the room with some dopey producer and you know, due to your 15 years of experience, that they’re wrong. Right now, the most important thing for you to do is listen. (oh, side note: Make sure that producer isn’t Kathleen Kennedy).
We had a worthy winner last week. Let’s see if we can do it again!
Here’s how Amateur Offerings works: Read as many of this weekend’s scripts as you can and vote for your favorite in the comments section. Winner gets a review next Friday.
If you’d like to submit your own script to compete on Amateur Offerings, send a PDF of your script to firstname.lastname@example.org with the title, genre, logline, and why you think your script should get a shot.
WEEKEND DEAL! Also, I’ve got a sweet SCRIPT NOTES weekend deal for you. $100 off any script consultation package. Well, except for the logline consultations, which are $25. I suppose that would mean I would owe $75 to anyone who signed up. Probably not a smart business decision. Anyway, if you want to sign up for a script consultation or a logline consultation, e-mail me at Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line, “CONSULTATION!”
On to the showdown!
Title: Bleak House
Logline: A preacher is placed inside a legendary haunted house where he must kill six members of his church in order to save his daughter from a dangerous criminal bent on revenge.
Why You Should Read: (note from Carson: The below text was spread out with lots of line breaks but I combined it into one paragraph so it didn’t take up the entire post) If this looks like something for you then please give this a read. It’s an elevated genre film that tackles social issues like the recent GET OUT did. Yet, this is more irreverent in its tone/characters. It has a great core question of: “As a parent would you be able to take another life in order to save your own child?” That central emotion is what will drive every reader to question how far their love would extend to save a loved one. Well pondering that question – you will be entertained every step of the way with its quirky characters. Like our lead JONAH who is a Tony Stark/Jordan Belfort type of flawed character who may not always make the best choices yet they are relatable one’s. This story is for every human being who is angry, heartbroken, who’s been shafted, who’s lost everything, who’s been ignored, not heard, lost, who is the outcast…who want to see real CHANGE. I have heard you and your feelings are reflected within this yarn. For the easily offended – note – It IS controversial…and errrr… no …I ain’t going to apologize. The TRUTH will set you free and unfortunately, sometimes it BITES. Judge for yourself. Have an opinion. Above all else…for those who’ve been searching for a place to belong… This is YOUR home… WELCOME HOME.
Title: Miss Fury
Genre: A female-led action thriller
Logline: A highly skilled group of female vigilante assassins, known as ‘the council’, must overcome brutal odds, to take down the deadliest human trafficking organization in America.
Why You Should Read: Thanks for taking the time to read my submission guys. I’m a horror writer, usually. But, decided to have a blast at the action genre. I’ve written many drafts to get it to this point, and would love to hear what Carson, and the rest of the site thinks about it. I really appreciate it guys, thank you.
Logline: A pregnant superhero struggles to complete a final, career-defining mission while losing her powers to her developing child.
Why You Should Read: By bringing a fresh perspective on the superhero craze, this screenplay became a finalist in the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest. With its slyly humorous take on the mid-life crisis of an aging superhero that doesn’t exactly have her act together, the script is a cross between Bridesmaids and The Avengers.
Title: Bury Your Dead
Logline: A young girl joins forces with her womanizing, alcoholic father who abandoned her years before, and a group of escaped slaves to track down the confederate soldiers who murdered her family.
Why You Should Read: This western won first place in the Script Pipeline contest last year. Matt at SPL said my latest (and much improved) draft was the best western he’s read in 10 years. Then he went on to say the only thing holding it back is that it’s a western. Well, shit! The producer of Bone Tomahawk, who is also producing a new movie with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, said he really enjoyed it and asked if it was still available. So I have my first meeting today (Tuesday June 6th). By the time it’s up for AOW (if I make the cut) I should have an update. So while I love the script and the characters, and while I also feel it’s strong overall, I know it’s not perfect and a work in progress. That’s where Carson and you lovely people come in… and with your help I know I can make it stronger than it is, give eyes to the weaknesses that I may have overlooked. Stuff to cut, stuff to expand, stuff to improve, etc. I also want to test the waters and see how people as a whole feel, react, and respond to the story and the characters. Hopefully this sees Saturday for voting and Friday for reviewing. I also promise to be part of the converation, which a lot of these AOW writers don’t seem to do. Thanks for reading and giving it a shot!
Logline: Two friends take off on a road trip to college, several states away, and decide to take a myriad of drugs while going through the desert on the way. The morning after this binge, they find themselves stranded in the middle of the desert, their car’s gas tank empty. What follows is a horrific, confusing, and uncooperative series of events that constantly rage against our characters, as they struggle to survive in the desert.
Why You Should Read: My name is Liam McNeal, I’m a twenty year old film fanatic from Washington state. This is my third screenplay, and it’s the most experimental of all of them. It’s a little wild, and deliberately avoids expectations, so it can tend to be a little off-putting, but I have faith in it. It’s absurd and a little unbelievable at times, but, as Paul Thomas Anderson said when confronted with similar accusations on Punch-Drunk Love, “If everyone else in town starts fucking doing that, maybe we’ll have some movies to watch.” Suspension of disbelief is an important element in filmmaking, and the purpose of this screenplay (again, experimental) was to try and see the boundaries of that, without totally breaking the relationship with the viewer. It’s betrayal after betrayal. I can understand if you or anyone else doesn’t like it, but I’m sticking with it, and I’m hoping to get some constructive criticism (which I will no doubt cherry pick) out of this experience. I realize that this may be contrary to the philosophy of your site, and I respect that, but my interests do not lie in selling, they lie in the art of the project. I don’t care about making money in this project, I just want to make something that is at least somewhat good. Unlike my previous screenplay (very long) this one is very short, but contains a lot of segments without dialogue.
Premise (from writer): Fleeing a violent past, a mechanic relocates to the anarchic edge of civilization to build a new life, and a new body, for her teenage son.
Why You Should Read: I’m a longtime reader, first-time submitter to your site, currently living in Vancouver and working hard on breaking into the industry. I’ve won a few national awards for my stage plays and now I’m finally at the point where I’m feeling confident enough in my screenwriting work to start submitting to competitions.Transference is my latest feature-length screenplay, which my table-reading group said has some strong Mad-Max-meets-Westworld vibes, and I wanted to throw this into the mix with the other Amateur Offerings to see how it stacks up in comparison.
Writer: Andy Garland
Details: 91 pages
As savvy veteran screenwriters have already discussed, Transference was up against the gun from the get-go. This logline had major issues, the biggest of which is that it doesn’t state the central source of conflict in the story. A woman goes to build her son a new body. Where’s the conflict there? It sounded more like a vacation.
Conflict comes from the “but then.” A woman goes to build her son a new body… BUT THEN. But then she encounters resistance from the increasingly hostile locals. Now sometimes, writers are just bad at loglines. I get that. Loglines are weird. Despite being so small, they’re unnecessarily confusing to construct. However, in my experience, when one doesn’t know how to add conflict to a logline, they don’t know how to add conflict period, leaving their screenplay devoid of tension or struggle. Let’s hope that’s not the case with Transference.
The surface of the earth is cooking. We’re somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and as a character will later tell us, because of the last generation’s idiot mistakes, the rest of us are suffering through one continuous bout of really bad sunburn.
Due to the increased temperatures, food has become scarce, and having children is akin to murder. Who would willingly bring a child into a situation where they’ll most certainly starve to death? Or worse. This has led a lot of people transferring their children’s consciousness into robotic bodies.
That’s where our hero Hailey is at. Hailey shows up in some dying bumblefuck town, buys an old shack, and starts using scrap parts to build a body for her son, Jacob, who’s currently living inside an old smartphone.
The plan is to lay low. But law enforcement gets wind of Hailey’s arrival and wants to know what’s up. Hailey keeps them at bay with a payout, but they remain curious, especially when a mysterious new fella rolls into town – Willis. Unlike everybody else in this world, Willis looks like he just rolled off an assembly line. Maybe that’s because he did. Willis, it turns out, is a robot.
And he’s in town looking for Hailey, willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. When Hailey learns that Willis is nearby, she goes full Gepetto, speeding up the process of building her son’s body. The closer Willis gets, the more we learn about why Hailey has to transfer her son, which brings to light a horribly selfish decision she made when she was younger, a decision that would’ve kept her son human.
When you finish a script, you place it in one of three mental categories. Yes. No. Maybe.
Transference falls into Maybe. However, I’m not sure if it’s a Maybe with potential. Or a “not bad” Maybe, the kind that fades from memory after a couple of days.
Transference in an intriguing cross between History of Violence, A.I., and Mad Max. It’s got an extensive badass mythology and some memorable characters to boot. However, it installs a plot mechanism I’ve never liked: Sitting your characters down into a single location and waiting.
Now, it’s not that this setup can’t work. If you keep the conflict coming at your characters and set up some looming danger they’ll have to deal with, you can build enough suspense and intrigue to keep us invested all the way through. The problem, unfortunately, is that because this narrative device is so static, it’s always on the verge of becoming boring, which means you have to be vigilante in constructing plot points and story threads to prevent even the slightest lull.
It’s different than something where characters are always on the move. The ever-changing environment ensures that new dangers and challenges could appear at any moment.
Some of this can be alleviated if your main character has a strong goal and remains active. Mad Max takes place in one location, but Max had a clear goal. Get himself enough fuel so he could be on his way. Transference has a goal as well – Hailey wants to rebuild her son. But there’s a slight problem with that. Her son is alive and lucid from the get-go. He just doesn’t have a body yet.
The reason this is an issue is because it isn’t clear what’s gained from Hailey completing her goal. If she isn’t able to build a full body for Jacob to inhabit, then what? She can still talk to him. He’s still “alive.” This goes back to the age-old screenwriting dilemma of stakes. What are the stakes of your character not achieving her goal? They don’t seem to be much in Transference, as far as I can tell.
With that said, I liked the mystery behind Hailey’s past. What is Hailey running from? Who’s chasing her and why? Seeing Willis come into town with Hailey in his sights infused Transference with some much-needed energy. This is the “looming” I referred to earlier. Whenever you have these stuck-in-one-place plots, “looming danger” is your greatest ally.
My other main problem with Transference is that the mythology, while cool, wasn’t as clear as it could’ve been. I wasn’t clear on why children were being turned into robots. Was having a child illegal to the point where the government would execute it? Was placing them inside a robotic body the only way to save them? Then there’s this curious rule that adults can’t transfer into robotic bodies. Only kids can. Cause their minds are still developing or something. But Willis had been transferred hadn’t he? And he was an adult. We also eventually find out that Jacob is now 20. Isn’t that an adult? So how is Hailey transferring him?
When you write a science-fiction (or fantasy) story with an elaborate mythology, the story relevant parts of that mythology must be explained clearly to the reader. Too many writers make the mistake of assuming the reader will just “get it.” But you have to remember that we haven’t spent the 50-some hours with you putting your mythology together. All we have to go on is the environment and the allusions to the rules you tell us.
The good news is that that isn’t a huge fix. It seems like Andy knows his mythology. He just hasn’t made it clear enough to us.
I’m more worried about the static location and the vague stakes. This script will live or die on the emotional impact of its mother-son relationship. To that end, we need to raise the stakes there somehow. Maybe you build something into the story where Jacob’s current hard drive is dying. Hailey needs to transfer his consciousness soon or lose him forever. That can be the last stage of the body building. And it’s a super fragile process. One mistake during the transfer and Jacob could be lost forever. This provides a ticking time bomb AND stakes.
I’d also recommend bringing Willis in a teensy bit earlier. Right now he hits us at the midpoint. I don’t think enough is going on in the first half of the script to keep us invested until that point. By introducing the looming threat of Willis earlier, we achieve more intrigue from the reader which should get us to that killer Willis bar scene (no pun intended!).
This script needs work but it’s pretty good! Definitely worthy of winning last week’s showdown.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Remember that time in reading is relative. It goes by slower if the reader is bored and faster if the reader is engaged. A great 130 page script will read exponentially faster than a shitty 90 page script. The good news is, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to manipulate time. One of those is a ticking time bomb. If you imply that time is running out, it creates the illusion during the read that time is moving faster. So if you have two scripts, both 100 pages, one with a ticking time bomb and one without, guess which one reads faster? If Hailey is in need of a part – the “brain” she must transfer Jacob into – and she only has a certain amount of time to find it or Jacob’s current “brain” will die out? You’re manipulating time. I’m not saying that this choice is the best for the story. Only that it and other decisions to manipulate time should be considered. If you’re not manipulating time on some level, your script is going to read like a textbook on the history of Siberia.
One of the joys of reading so many scripts is seeing how they end up on the big screen. There is no exact science to this stuff. A script you were sure was a slam dunk ends up DOA. Or a script you thought was awful beyond belief goes on to win an Oscar. But as the creator of a site all about screenwriting, you’d think I’d have a better track-record than most. So I thought it’d be fun to look back over the years and check out the scripts I misevaluated. These scripts went on to either become box office or critical hits, or box office or critical bombs. Oh Elizabeth, how in the world could I have gotten it so wrong?!
La La Land – La La Land had a box office ceiling of, maybe, 30 million dollars. And that’s on the optimistic side. The budget for this movie was tiny. And while musicals had done okay in recent years, all of them had extravagant production budgets. To do a musical at this price point? Quite frankly, it had never been attempted before. I found La La Land’s script to be the embodiment of cliche. The characters were painfully obvious (we want to be stars! but edgy stars like 1950s Hollywood icons! Haven’t seen that before.) And the script, which featured Los Angeles as its backdrop, seemed to be written by someone who’d spent a weekend there once when he was 12. I’d seen more knowledge of the city in a 1990s Hollywood Best Western brochure. However, in retrospect, these “problems” were exactly what helped the movie connect with people. The characters were simple and easy to identify with. And the obvious Hollywood locations were exactly what people who’d never been to Los Angeles wanted to see. To them, those were the places they’d romanticized with since they were children. Nobody cares about that cool “only in the know” taco-slash-pie stand in Los Feliz that’s open from 2-4am on Tuesdays. Now to my credit, nobody else thought this would be a hit either. Since its release, agents all over town were fired by actors pissed off that they weren’t made aware of the project.
Allied – When I first read Allied, I gave up on it 30 pages in. It went on and on and on and NOTHING HAPPENED. However, when I went back to it a second time, I realized that that was part of the plan, and that I’d read up to a few pages shy of the big twist that would dictate the rest of the script. After going back and reading the whole thing, I thought I’d just read the next Casablanca – a complicated love story set against the backdrop of the biggest war in history. However, audiences didn’t see it that way. The friends of mine who saw the film extended a “Eh, it was okay,” and that was it. In the end I think they cast the film wrong. I don’t think Pitt had the acting chops to handle the male role. And the casting of the female role was uninspired. But maybe I should’ve paid more attention to my initial reaction. What movie takes 45 minutes to get gong? Audiences don’t have the patience for that these days. And I think all that waiting put them in a malaise that they never quite recovered from.
The Founder – A movie about the founder of McDonald’s? How boring does that sound? That was my first reaction when I heard about this project. But I fell in love with the script, whose subject was fascinating. You had an aging failed salesman, your perfect underdog, but also someone who was hard to like. He was a capitalist to the extreme, eager to destroy the very people who helped him become rich. All this amidst the perfect symbol of irony – those golden arches that we’ve come to associate with the American Dream, built on the back of a slimeball, a snake-oil salesman who put himself over everyone else. And yet no one went to see it. It didn’t even get awards attention. Sometimes when you fall in love with a script, you forget about what you were feeling when you first opened it. “A movie about the founder of McDonald’s? How boring does that sound?” And I think that’s why this movie tanked. Was there really some clamoring to know about the guy who invented McDonald’s? No, the box office receipts proved. There wasn’t.
Manchester By The Sea – Oh boy. I need to take a deep breath for this one. I haaaaaaated this script. I think Manchester by the Sea is the embodiment of screenwriting fraud, a glacial lumbering monotonous awards seeker that manipulates people into supporting it less they look like they don’t “get” important subject matter. However, the script would go on to win the screenwriting Oscar for best original screenplay. One of the things I constantly have to remind myself is that I’m not the speaker of the people. Just because I think something is boring doesn’t mean others do as well. I love movies where the story is being pushed forward in every scene (it’s one of the first things they teach you in screenwriting!). But some people don’t need that. They want their movies to reflect real life where the developments come slowly and deliberately. When you don’t have those conventions pulling and twisting at your story, a movie can come pretty close to mirroring real life. And I think that’s what happened here. People saw this and felt like it was really happening. And that was powerful to them.
Draft Day – This script finished number 1 on the Black List, which is a huge deal when you think about it. The Black List loves its quirky and its timely. It doesn’t usually get behind spec-y sports subject matter. It could be argued that Draft Day fits perfectly into the Scriptshadow paradigm. It was designed around a single important day that would make or break an organization (GSU TO THE MOON!). It also had some interesting character development going on, with this father who had a broken relationship with his daughter, both of whom had to work within the same organization. The script had this underdog component to it, and new revelations about this draft pick popping up every 10 pages. It was the antithesis to Manchester by the Sea. There was always something happening. Then I watched the movie and it seemed like every thing I loved about the script had disappeared. The script was one of the fastest I read all year. The movie was slow as molasses. The main character in the script was full of energy. Kevin Costner looked tired and agitated. Everything on the page felt important. The movie felt cheesy. I think this subject matter was too quirky for general audiences. And maybe a football team’s draft just wasn’t as good of a plot source as I thought it was.
American Sniper – Of all the scripts on this list, American Sniper is the one that still keeps me up at night. I thought this script S-U-C-K-E-D. I thought the main character was B-O-R-I-N-G (what was Chris Kyle’s inner conflict exactly?). I wasn’t sure what point the story was trying to make (War is sorta bad?). I thought it was directionless. We’re going off to war, we’re coming back home, then off to war again, then back home again, then off to war again. There was no major goal (with Saving Private Ryan, we were going to get Private Ryan!). And if we’re being completely honest, here, would anyone have seen this movie if Chris Kyle hadn’t died shortly after his biography was written? This is one of my weaknesses as a script evaluator. I am looking for a great story. When I finished Allied, I loved the chances the writer took by waiting so long for his big reveal. And I gave him big points for that, since most screenwriters would’ve played it safe. But most of the time, good movies come down to connecting with the character. And the reason so many people went to see this movie is because Chris Kyle was a hero to them. He killed a lot of bad guys. They don’t need plot points. They don’t need some defining character evaluation. This dude helped protect their country. And they held him in high esteem for that. That’s a lesson in conceptualizing I need to learn.
Collateral Beauty – I’m still mad that I gave this script high marks. In retrospect, its problems were so glaring that I must have been on drugs to ignore them. The notion of “buy-in” has come center stage since the recent release of the batty Book of Henry. When you ask your reader to buy into implausibility after implausibility, there eventually comes a breaking point. I think what I hung onto about Collateral Beauty is that it was one of the last huge spec-y sales in Hollywood. It represented the notion that you could still write something with a fun gimmicky premise, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, and someone would buy it. We don’t have that anymore. Or, at least, we’re on hiatus from it. But even if you like a concept or the idea of a script, it still has to execute. And Collateral Beauty required we make so many leaps of logic that there wasn’t a lick of truth left by the time the closing credits rolled around.
Spotlight - My frustration with Spotlight comes from this being the most fertile subject matter to build a story around in decades, yet the writer choosing to explore it through the most sterile lens available. The characters were empty vessels with zero development. The victims and abusers were barely explored. It was all about the investigation. About the “gotcha.” And I don’t think that’s the right way to explore something like mass child abuse. To be honest, I still struggle to understand why this movie was celebrated by critics (it won a screenwriting Oscar). But if I were to guess, I’d say that hypocrisy had a lot to do with it. Hypocrisy is such a powerful storytelling tool, that when it’s front and center in your story, it can cover up a lot of lackluster writing. What bigger hypocrisy if there than the institution we’re supposed to trust more than anything abusing us and covering it up? That storyline is fascinating to people. And to see the church go down, to get that “gotcha,” was enough for most.
Birdman – Of all the scripts on this list, this is the one I’m the most surprised I didn’t like. It’s got a fun little screenwriting gimmick at its core (contrary to popular belief, I like a good gimmicky setup), with this one continuous day in the prep of a play thing. It’s got a lot of weirdness, a lot of unpredictability. It’s got strange characters. However, even after I saw the film, which was better than the script, I agreed with my original assessment. I think my ultimate problem was that it was trying too hard. It wanted so badly to be considered quirky and different that it ceased being organic. One of the screenwriting skills I hold in high regard is the ability to make one’s writing invisible – to make us forget that we’re watching/reading something. Birdman was the opposite of that. You could feel the writing on every page. However, the movie looked and felt unlike anything else that had been made in years, and that goes a long way. It’s hard to make something that feels truly original. And I definitely give Birdman props for that.
Untitled Chef Project (Burnt) – You guys may have forgotten about this script. It was once in my top 5! And I loved it. The story itself was fairly vanilla. But the reason it rocked was because of its kickass unpredictable unhinged protagonist. Every scene was an adventure because you never knew what this guy was going to do next. So why did the movie (which eventually went on to star Bradley Cooper) fail so miserably? I think Burnt fell into two classic Hollywood holes. For one, it came out too late. It was written during the Chef craze on television but wasn’t made until 7 years later. So everything that was fresh and new about the script felt dated and cliched by the time it hit theaters. Also, it was a tweener. It wasn’t sure if it was a drama or a romantic comedy. And you could feel that when you watched the trailer or looked at the poster. You couldn’t identify the genre. Also, maybe, just maybe, the character wasn’t as edgy as I thought he was. And if that’s how people felt, the movie had nothing left to offer.
There you go guys. All my failings on blast. What scripts were you dead wrong about?
Premise: Told out of order in three separate time segments, a family of brothers clash with a pair of local drug dealers, the aftermath of which will change their lives forever.
About: This script sold a few years ago for almost a million bucks. Ingelsby was one of the big spec sale machines at the time, routinely selling scripts since DiCaprio fell in love with his first screenplay, The Low Dweller, which eventually was rewritten by director Scott Cooper, and became the film, “Out of the Furnace,” starring Christian Bale. Ingelsby’s sold 5-6 other scripts besides these two.
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Details: 132 pages
What in the hell is happening in the world??
Hollywood’s golden child directors, Lord and Miller, were abruptly fired from the Han Solo project Monday a full 5 months into production. Everyone involved is spinning this like it’s not a big deal, but how could it be anything BUT a big deal? Directors get fired from major movies during production once every 10 years.
And remember what happened on Rogue One. After watching Gareth Edwards’ first cut, they told him to take a seat and let Dan Gilroy direct the rest of the film. BUT THEY NEVER FIRED EDWARDS. The fact that they were so mad with what they’ve seen on Solo that they’d fire Lord and Miller is a huge statement in regards to the project (and the feisty Star Wars team in general).
Interestingly enough, they’re saying the problem is screenwriting-related – that Lord and Miller didn’t understand the character of Han Solo. To them, Han Solo was a goofy jokester. But to Lucasfilm, Han Solo is sarcastic and selfish.
The reason this is relevant is because, to the average moviegoer, these adjectives are interchangeable. But screenwriters know that even a slight shift in a character’s essence changes them completely. It is our job to pay attention to these details for these details will affect the entirety of how the character engages with the story.
If this report is accurate, Lucasfilm is spot on. You make Han a jokester, he’s a joke. What makes Han compelling is the fact that he never tries to be funny. His humor is an offshoot of his sarcastic view of the world.
Not to worry, Lord and Miller. I’m sure you’ll end up in a better place. How’s that for a transition? Now let’s get into today’s very non-Star Wars related script. I promise not to fire anyone before I’m finished.
We start in South Philly. Actually, I don’t know which section of Philly we start in. I just think “South Philly” sounds cooler than “Philly.” So we start in South Philly. That’s where we meet the Borzell brothers.
There’s Chris, the broad-shouldered blue-collar carpenter. There’s Barry, the wimpy professor who just married a woman with four children. There’s Mike the doorman who doubles as a ladies man (according to him), and there’s Justin, the recovering drug addict.
The brothers are ditching South Philly for the weekend for a much-needed family gathering in the Poconos. While drinking at a local Poconos bar, they encounter drug dealer Daryl Wilkins and his squirrly sidekick, Kurt Sprouse. The six of them get in a fight, and the brothers are able to outnumber them for the win.
Later on, after fishing, Sprouse stumbles up to the brothers out of nowhere, bleeding to death. The group realizes that Sprouse is being chased by bigger nastier drug dealers, and during the chaos, Mike sees Sprouse’s partner hide 1 million dollars worth of cocaine in the forest before making a run for it.
Cut back to 3 weeks ago for Section 2 of the script, where we get to know a little more about the brothers. We see Barry get married to the woman with four kids whose teenaged daughter hates him, despite the fact that Barry is now paying for this entire families’ survival. We find out Justin is really struggling to distance himself from his addict lifestyle. And we also find out how Wilkins and Sprouse got involved in the biggest drug deal of their lives.
We finally flash forward to the final section, which occurs a couple of weeks after our first section. After getting fired from his doorman job, Mike can’t stop thinking about those hidden drugs, and proposes to the family that they try and sell them. The brothers are reluctant at first, but as we’ve established, all of their lives could be easier with a nice bump of cash. So they go get the drugs and set up a deal. We sense that the brothers are tempting fate, however, and prepare for something very untoward to go down.
Ingelsby’s strengths are detail, dialogue, character and authenticity. His scripts read almost like novels, adding a level of depth you’re not used to when you sit down to read a script. But that depth comes at a cost. The burn is slow. And if you’re someone who needs to check his Instagram every 2 minutes, you’re not going to make it through an Ingelsby screenplay.
Now, not all slow burns are created equal. The good ones manage to build in a way where you forget the deliberate pace. The most effective way to achieve this is by ASKING A QUESTION. That question should be as big as you can make it and affect your key characters as much as possible. If you can achieve this, we’ll patiently endure your slow burn.
Why? Because we want to know the answer to the question. A good example of this is American Beauty. Lester Burnham tells us, at the beginning of the film, that in one year, he will be dead. But we don’t know how he dies. That’s the question we want answered.
My issue with A Better Place is that it waited until page 100 to ask the question – that being, “What’s going to happen to these brothers when they try to sell these drugs?” To Ingelsby’s credit, once that question was asked, I was all in. I had a sense that not all of these brothers were going to make it and I wanted to find out which ones bit it and which survived.
But to make me wait 100 pages before I even knew that’s where the story was going seemed excessive. I have a feeling that that’s why Ingelsby used his funky time structure here. The structure was basically unnecessary. But it helped break things up in a way that distracted from the fact that it was taking so long to get to the point.
Then again, Ingelsby may argue that those 100 pages of character burn were the very reason I cared so much when the characters finally did enter that drug deal. But I believe that audiences are savvy these days. They pick up things faster. And you could’ve made us care about this family within a much shorter timeframe.
Also, by waiting so long, Ingelsby missed some opportunities. Take Justin, for example, the drug addict brother. Because the drug deal is squeezed into the final 30 pages, we only get one scene where Justin and the drugs are alone. Had we started building up an impending deal earlier, Justin could’ve been in charge of those drugs for days, weeks even. An addict who’s finally gotten sober with 30 kilos of cocaine in his kitchen at all times? That’s a compelling situation.
The way I see it, you want to make the slow burn work for you, not against you. So if you’re going to take your time, you want to start multiple suspenseful plot threads as early as possible and have them linger in the background while you explore your characters. A Better Place was more like, “I’m going to spend 100 pages telling you about all these people and then we’ll get to the fun.”
With that said, if you miss those big sprawling 70s movies like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, A Better Place is clearly inspired by those films. The majority of the second section even gives us one of those giant 70s cinema wedding sequences. But your enjoyment of A Better Place will probably coincide with your patience level. The buildup was longer than I would’ve liked, but the ending does kick ass. And, for that reason, I think it’s worth checking out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Slow burns don’t use goals so much as they ask questions. So if you’ve got a slow-burn screenplay, take advantage of this device. And don’t just ask one question. It’s probably not enough to keep us invested for 110 pages. Ask numerous questions. Then sneak in all that slowly developing character stuff in between the answers.