Hey guys, I’m a little overwhelmed with work at the moment. Today’s review of “Fool” will have to be moved to next Friday. Feel free to discuss the impending behemoth that is Suicide Squad at the box office this weekend. I’m so bummed that it’s getting horrible reviews as I was really looking forward to this. DC and Warners don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Which is strange, since they’re the ones hiring the big name directors whereas Marvel is just punching these nobodies into the chair and coming up with much better films. Are the Marvel characters just more suited for cinema? Is it strictly a tonal miscalculation. I don’t know. But I’ll be reviewing Suicide Squad come Monday. See ya then!
If you’ve listened to me babble on this site for any length of time, you know that the most important component I value in screenwriting is SIMPLICITY. The simpler the setup and the plot, the cleaner and more impactful your movie is going to be. The Terminator. The Martian. Indiana Jones. One character, one goal, one easy to follow story. I’ll never stop trumpeting that simplicity is the essential ingredient to good storytelling. That doesn’t mean you can’t have complexity in your script, but instead of exploring it through the plotting, you explore it in your characters.
However, it’s occurred to me over the last five years that the Hollywood landscape – specifically the big budget landscape – is shifting away from that. The movies are getting bigger, and with them the character count. From this week’s Suicide Squad to Avengers to X-Men to Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy to Fast and Furious to Now You See Me to Bridesmaids. A new emphasis has been placed on multiple character through-lines.
Now here’s something you might’ve noticed with the rise of these films. THEY’RE NOT AS GOOD. Sure, you get a good one every once in awhile. But most of the time they get lost in the muck of too many characters trying to do too many damn things. Consider this. If you have a six-character cross-cutting ensemble, that means that each of your characters is going to have around 20-25 minutes to complete their entire character arc.
This is why studio ensembles have 2 and a half to 3 hour running times. They think that if they just extend the running time and give each character more time that way, it’ll be the best of both worlds. But the big bloated running times add a new problem – they slow the fucking pace down. And there’s nothing that pisses an audience off more than a slow movie.
However, there’s no doubt that if you’re a screenwriter who wants to play in the sandbox that is today’s Hollywood, you need to be able to write ensembles. This is becoming a necessary skill. So how do you do it? I’m going to tell you how. Now you may say to yourself, “Well so-and-so comic book movie didn’t do that, Carson,” or “That space opera movie didn’t do that, Car-boy.” Yeah, that’s because 99% of screenwriters don’t know how to write an ensemble. They’re just making up shit as they go along. Here’s how you approach an ensemble and actually end up with something good.
1) Have a main character – When you think of “ensemble,” you think that every character should have an equal amount of screen time and plot contribution. That’s not necessarily true. There should be one character the film is still centered around. Your Starloard, your Luke Skywalker, your Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids. These movies jump around a lot. You need someone to keep coming back to to center the story. If you have five main characters, one should take up 30% of the movie, while the other four should take up 15% each. The percentages will differ depending on your story, of course, but that’s a good way to look at it.
2) For the love of all that is holy, keep the plot simple! – Here’s where most Hollywood movies screw this up. They think: Big movie, big plot!! No. Look no further than the lumbering Batman vs. Superman or the majority of the Pirates movies to see how this backfires. You’ve already got a bunch of characters we need to keep track of. Why make things even harder on the viewer by adding some big complicated plot? The solution is to do the opposite. Make the plot as simple as you can. Look at the Toy Story movies for this. The goals are very simple: “Rescue someone.” Or “Escape.” Or look at Now You See Me. We’re robbing banks. It’s a very clean setup, which actually allows us to enjoy the characters, since we’re not wasting 70% of your brain energy trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
3) The MacGuffin is your friend – A MacGuffin is the one thing that everybody in your story is after and is basically designed for ensemble movies. You see, one of the problems with ensembles is that it’s easy to forget what each individual character is trying to achieve. An ensemble eradicates that problem since every character is chasing the same thing. This is why the original Star Wars works so well. Everyone is chasing R2-D2, who has the stolen plans to the Death Star. If a simple plot isn’t an option, I strongly suggest you use a MacGuffin.
4) More focus on strong clear objectives – Let’s say you follow a scene with Character A with a 4 minute scene from Character B, a 3 minute scene from Character C, and a 5 minute scene from Character D, before coming back to Character A. 12 minutes and 3 character threads have just elapsed since now and the last time we saw Character A. Can you be sure that the audience will remember what was going on with Character A? No. For this reason, when you’re doing ensembles, it’s essential that each character’s mission or goal or current pursuit is STRONG and it is CLEAR. If it isn’t, we’ll forget what they’re trying to accomplish and be bored the second they come back (“Not this wandering idiot again.”). Remember the Lois Lane bullet search thread in Batman vs. Superman? How unimportant it felt? That’s an example of a weak pursuit. Does anybody know what half the robots are doing in the Transformers movies? That’s an example of an UNCLEAR pursuit. You can’t afford to have either in an ensemble.
5) Keep the writing as clean and as sparse as possible – Finally guys, go back to Screenwriting 101 to get ensembles right. Super clean writing with NO EXCESS fat. You’re asking the audience to keep track of five or six different story threads. That’s a lot to ask. To make that easier on them, get rid of any characters you don’t absolutely need, get rid of any scenes you don’t absolutely need. Cut all of your existing scenes down to only what you need to make them work. With an ensemble, you can’t have anything that distracts. This is why Star Wars still holds up to this day. It doesn’t have a single unnecessary moment.
Okay guys, what I can’t do for you is tell you how to handle a producer who tells you you need to add Captain Zorkaspian to your movie three months before its release because the studio has decided to do a spin-off film with him in 2024 and “Marketing” says it’s best to hype him early. But what I can do is help you write a clean ensemble script. Main character, simple plot or Macguffin, strong and clear character objectives, writing as clean as possible. Now go forth with this knowledge and write the next average super-hero movie!
Genre: Crime Drama
Premise: In 1984, a young Brooklyn detective discovers that two of his co-workers are killing for the mob and attempts to take them down.
About: This is based on a real-life story, which was turned into a non-fiction book by the detective. It was adapted by one of the hottest scribes in town, Bill Dubuque, who penned my only genius-rated script this year, the pilot, “Ozark” (coming to Netflix). Last we heard, Brotherhood was going to be directed by Jose Padilha, the director of Bus 174 and the latest Robocop, but they may be looking for someone new now.
Writer: Bill Dubuque (based on the book “The Brotherhoods” by Guy Lawson and William Oldham)
Details: 128 pages (2012 draft)
One of the only ways to purchase a great book to adapt into a movie is to get the book before it hits big. You want to avoid The Martian scenario if you’re a producer, where the book gets so huge that you’re stuck paying a hefty price tag for the rights. This is why so many deals happen before a book is released. You gotta get’em while they’re cheap!
One problem with that, though, is that most of the time those bets don’t pay off. The book doesn’t become as big as you thought, and now you’re saddled with this book that nobody’s heard of, trying to turn it into a movie. I don’t know the exact details behind when WB purchased The Brotherhood, but I know that nobody’s read the book. So it’s entirely possible that that’s how this deal went down.
Still, WB feels like they have the next Departed on their hands. And maybe if they massage that formula into a few dozen rewrites, that may happen. But right now, I don’t know what you do with this lumbering piece of concrete.
William Oldham is the youngest cop to hit detective in the Brooklyn precinct in like, since the whole cop thing started. Oldham has lived an interesting life, growing up with his younger brother in Vietnam while his father fought in the war there. A couple of decades later, he wants to do what his dad did, take down the bad guys.
So here we are in 1984, New York, and we finally have someone who’s not afraid to take on the mob, Rudy Giuliani. This throws the infamous five families for a loop, and when their power slides, a new power rises – a brasher more dangerous type of criminal.
This is the criminal Oldham wants to take down. But problems arise when his bosses, Detective Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, deter him from pursuing certain cases, particularly cases where police informants are being killed. Oldham wants to know how these informants are getting fingered, since their involvement is top secret.
Well, it doesn’t take long before we realize Caracappa and Eppolito are the killers, and that they’re actually working for the mob, killing for them all over town. This probably shouldn’t have been a surprise since Caracappa’s father was a mobster himself. I mean, basic background check there, guys.
Anyway, Oldham moves to take these guys down, but because they’re his bosses, he’ll have to play everything very carefully. One slip up and he might not just lose his job, but his life.
I’m going to sound like a broken record here but…. SNOOOORRRRRE.
I mean come on. How freaking many of these mob movies have we seen??? I don’t like most of these movies but I’m convinced that if I wrote one, it would be ten times better than anything else out there because at the very least I WOULD FIND A FRESH ANGLE.
That’s my biggest beef with Brotherhood. It actually starts off promising. We learn that Giuliani’s emergence (as a young attorney passing hard-hitting crime bills) has thrown the five families into disarray and that a “new dangerous kind of criminal” has taken their place.
New dangerous kind of criminal? Hell yeah. Sign me up!
Just the thought of that, the promise of that, gets me thinking about all these wonderful actors that would want to play that role (or roles).
Unfortunately, that role never emerges. Instead, we get the same old boring “cop trying to take down another cop” storyline that we’ve seen a million times before. Cops are being bad. We have to catch them in the act.
They’ve made that movie already!!! Even worse, the story still revolves around the five families. I thought the five families were done!
This is a period in mob history that nobody’s written about, to my knowledge. The aftermath of the five families losing power, and what emerges in that void. That sounds fascinating to me. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. I haven’t seen Godfather 3. Maybe they cover it there. But why aren’t we covering that? That’s the movie there!
This is what drives me nuts about Hollywood. They’re more interested in making “the next” something (in this case, Departed) than they are “the new” something. Stop trying to copy. BE FUCKING ORIGINAL!
With that said, this book was reportedly so dense and boring that Dubuque might’ve fallen asleep while adapting it. Here’s a snippet of Bryan Burrough’s review of the book in the New York times: “The trouble is Lawson’s use of detail. There’s a world of difference between “telling” detail and telling every detail. At one point I had to stop and shake my head when I realized he was actually explaining the brand name of a chair Oldham uses during a prison conference.”
You can feel Dubuque grappling with this problem and looking for anything that might excite. For example, Oldham has a younger brother, John, who’s featured in the first half of the script, who gets on a plane to China, only for the Korean Air flight he’s on to be shot down by the Russian government.
It’s technically a dramatic moment, and yet it doesn’t tie into any part of the story. What does Russians shooting down a jet airliner have to do with crooked cops in Brooklyn? That’s the problem here. There’s so little that’s unique to latch onto that even stuff that doesn’t fit into your story has to be included.
The script also seems to miss an opportunity to create a really great character in Eppolito. Eppolito had actually written a screenplay about his life and, believe it or not, scored a cameo as a heavy in Goodfellas! He was the low life idiot to Caracappa’s more stoic leader.
Had we seen their dynamic more and watched them kill these people and their inevitable scramble when the hammer came down, the script may have been more entertaining. A dynamic with one badass and one moron tends to lead to some good dialogue, which we were never privy to.
Instead we’re stuck with a stock love story between Oldham and states attorney, Lori Santorelli, who spend the majority of their scenes making love or discussing their troubled childhoods.
At one point, it looked like Santorelli was going to be working for the bad guys. I was so excited. FINALLY! A twist to wake this story up. But no. It was a false alarm.
That’s what this entire script felt like. A false alarm. :(
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: At least when you come to me with a crime script, don’t even bother unless yo have a fresh take. The only exception is if you do what Scorsese does, which is to give us all these fascinating details about the world that we never knew before. That’s exciting. But if it’s just another “cops being bad” semi-procedural storyline? Myself and most others won’t be interested. And please, someone go write this script about the “new kind of criminals” that took over New York after the families were squashed. That sounds like a cool movie.
Premise: When terrorists take over a deep-sea oil drilling rig, the only person they don’t account for is a diver in the middle of a dive. That oversight will come back to haunt them.
About: Not much is known about this one other than it’s an early script from Kurt Wimmer, one of my favorite action writers and, when spec sales were hot, a script-selling machine. Wimmer wrote Salt (I’m talking the awesome original, before they gender-swapped it) and more recently, Point Break.
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Details: 125 pages
I’ve always wanted a thriller that takes place on one of those ocean oil drilling platforms! What’s a more perfect setting for a bunch of crazy ass shit to go down? Yeah, Deepwater Horizon is coming out, but that’s a real-life story that has to abide by real-life facts. This script is all about the fun!
Also, I love reading early work from successful writers. It’s one of the easiest ways to see how writers improve over time, and therefore a great educational source, as you can see if you’re making those same mistakes yourself.
Bill Disney is a deep-sea diver. It’s what he does. When there’s some dangerous dive that needs to be done and every other wuss-ball on the planet says it’s “too dangerous,” that’s when Bill comes in. So when Piper Epsilon, one of the biggest deep sea oil drilling rigs in the world, says they need a diver to come fix their drill, Bill is on his way.
Meanwhile, Piper Epsilon is preparing itself for an annual military exercise. They get paid by the U.S. military to allow a team to come in and “pretend take-over” the rig. It’s a fun little game. The military team shoots paint balls. You throw up your hands and pretend to die. It adds a little spontaneity to an otherwise stress-heavy job.
Oh, except this year’s SEAL squad isn’t pretend. They’re fucking real. When Natalia, the rig manager, realizes that people are really being killed, she tries to escape, only to find out that, duh, there are people on her rig who helped set this up.
Once the two masterminds, Schiller and Garr, take control, they make a call to the U.S. saying that if they don’t helicopter over 100 million dollars, they’ll release a few billion tons of crude oil into the North Sea, creating the biggest man-made catastrophe in history.
Meanwhile, Bill, who was in the middle of his dive, figures out something is up and swims back to the surface. He sneaks around the complex and its mega-dangerous platform (giant rogue waves can send a man to his death at any moment) before meeting up with Natalia. The two then figure out a way to take the bad guys down.
Meanwhile, we learn the truth about Schiller and Garr’s take-over, which of course has nothing to do with money. It turns out that nearby is a forgotten Russian sub that sank in the 1970s. And in that sub? Well, that’s the real takeaway here. Something so dangerous that if Schiller and Garr get their hands on it, they’ll be able to dictate terms to the entire world.
Okay, like I said, I love Wimmer. I still think Salt is one of the best action-thriller specs ever written.
What’s interesting about Platform is that you can see Wimmer still working on his craft. And you newbies or even intermediates would be smart to pay attention, since many of his early mistakes are the same mistakes you’re making.
For starters – weird naming.
What a strange decision to name your hero, “Bill Disney.” It’s a name that makes you think of anything other than an action hero, and it’s just an odd choice. I see this a lot in young writers. They believe, for some reason, that they need to come up with some weird or catchy name. The problem is, weird names draw attention to themselves, taking our focus away from where it should be – the story.
Next up – bulky writing.
If you read Wimmer’s later stuff, it’s much leaner. Here, we have a lot of 6-7 line paragraphs. This is screenwriting suicide in an action spec. You have to move through things quickly.
And let’s not forget – sticking too closely to plot beats from your favorite movies.
This is Die Hard on an ocean rig. No, I mean this is REALLY DIE HARD ON AN OCEAN RIG. Young screenwriters love movies. That’s why they wanted to become screenwriters in the first place! But they love certain movies so much that when they write scripts, they follow the same beats from those movies. So even though an ocean drilling rig is the farthest thing in the world from a building in Los Angeles, the movies feel too similar, and the reader feels cheated.
And – repeating favorite scenes.
Same deal here. STOP REWRITING YOUR FAVORITE SCENES FROM OTHER MOVIES. We have a scene of SWAT members on a plane, heading to the rig, looking cool, talking shit, that’s eerily reminiscent to a certain scene from Predator. We even get the line, “It’s too early in the morning for this shit,” which is a stock dialogue line that has been in 90% of these types of scenes.
With that said, even here, you can see why Wimmer showed so much potential. This guy is a research machine, something you NEVER GET from young writers, who think they can make 90% of the shit up and no one will notice. Why is research important? Because when something feels authentic, the reader believes in it more. Which increases the likelihood that they’ll get lost in your story. Check out this excerpt:
Piper Epsilon remains in place by virtue of a dozen 10,000 horsepower satellite-guided directional thrusters attached to the legs sub-sea level that keep it precisely in place over the drilling hole in ever the worst weather.
Wimmer also finds a fresh way into the story. 9 out of 10 screenwriters would’ve had our fake SEAL team show up and shoot everyone into oblivion. By orchestrating this fake military exercise, the opening feels more alive, a little less predictable, and by association, more fun.
And I’d be remiss not to point out how effortlessly Wimmer weaves together several different complicated threads in the opening act, each containing a lot of exposition and setup. I tell writers to stay the hell away from this. Open up simple so that you don’t lose your reader before the script’s even started. But Wimmer keeps things clear enough and exciting enough, that even though we’re reading through loads of information and keeping track of a lot of new characters, we never get lost. That’s A-grade screenwriting right there.
Despite that and some other good writing, Platform can never quite escape that it’s a beat-for-beat remake of Die Hard. It felt too darn familiar. And let this be a lesson to you guys. Yes, you want to draw inspiration from your favorite films. But try to stay away from copying scenes, and DEFINITELY stay away from copying plot beats. You’d be better off actively doing the OPPOSITE of major plot beats from your favorite films, since that’s what’s going to make your script unique.
I think this one barely passes the “worth the read” grade. There’s enough good in here for screenwriters to learn from. And since this script is old enough, we’re going to go Scriptshadow Retro here and post it. Enjoy!
Script link: Platform
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If a character is going to cry or “fight back tears,” make sure they’re “real-life tears” and not “movie-logic tears.” Another rookie mistake here. In the beginning of the movie, Bill dives down with some young Danish guy who he doesn’t know and doesn’t like. They dive for 30 minutes and the Dane ends up dying. Bill tries to revive him to no avail, and afterwards, “fights back tears.” Uhhhhh, no. Those are movie-logic tears. He doesn’t know this guy. He didn’t like him 30 minutes ago. He’s not all of a sudden going to be crying over his death. Always ask yourself, “Would they cry in real life?” If the answer is yes, MAYBE add it to the script. But crying is so overused in movies anyway, that you want to use it as sparingly as possible.
This week’s newsletter is great! We’ve got the latest script from the writer of my favorite script ever. We’ve got an interview with a professional comedy screenwriter. We’ve got the screenplay tip of the week. We tackle the age-old question: Should I quit screenwriting? Lots and lots to play with here. So if you didn’t receive the newsletter, CHECK YOUR SPAM AND PROMOTIONS FOLDERS. If it isn’t in there, e-mail me at Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line “NO NEWSLETTER” and I’ll send it to you. If you want to sign up for the newsletter, e-mail that same address with the subject line, “NEWSLETTER.” Enjoy!!