Premise: An Air Force Lieutenant assigned to debunk UFO sightings has a sighting of his own, which changes his approach to life.
About: This is that often-talked about draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that Spielberg did a complete rewrite of. How drastically did he change things? And why mess with a script written by one of the best screenwriters of the 70s? Paul Schrader had written Taxi Driver and would go on to write American Gigolo, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. He was also utilized as the number one script doctor of that era.
Writer: Paul Schrader
Details: 133 pages
I’ll start this review off with a giant thank you. Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for making sure this version of Close Encounters never saw the light of day.
I’ll go one step further. The ineptitude of this script makes me retroactively question Taxi Driver. I now wonder whether that movie was one of those lucky accidents, an accumlation of many different contributors coming together to make something great in spite of a weak screenplay. Because, when you think about it, Taxi Driver is a pretty messy script. I suppose I should give credit to Schrader for creating a great character. But that narrative was always all the hell over the place.
We see the same with Kingdom Come, a bizarre excuse for a UFO movie that feels like it was written in eight different sections and pieced together on an assembly line. To say this script is a mess is an understatement. And it forever alters how I see the screenwriter who is Paul Schrader.
It’s 1960 and Paul VanOwen, a 40 year-old Air Force Lieutenant, has been given the unenviable task of investigating UFO sightings. These sightings are happening more and more often across the country, and as far as VanOwen is concerned, they’re all hogwash.
Then a big one comes along – a series of sightings in the small town of Clarenceville, Indiana. VanOwen goes down there with a small team to tell anyone who believes in this nonsense that they’re a moron. But then, while driving back to his hotel one night, he has a close encounter with an alien ship.
VanOwen’s entire outlook changes, to the point where he’s begging the U.S. Government to give UFOs a legitimate look. They end up telling him to screw off, but later on, VanOwen is cornered by a secret group who call themselves “Project Grief.” These are the REAL government UFO investigators, so Top Secret that their own government doesn’t even know of their existence. Huh?
They ask VanOwen if he wants to join, but concede he’ll have to leave his family and pretend he’s dead to do so. Sure! He says, without a second thought. Cut to 13 years later and VanOwen is still on the hunt for that perfect UFO case, the one that’s going to finally reveal that UFOs are, indeed, real.
Unfortunately, Project Grief spends most of its time sitting around waiting, not unlike firefighters between fires. The only difference is that it takes a lot longer for a UFO sighting to come along than it does a fire. Which means lots of waiting. And waiting. Oh, and did I mention waiting?
Eventually, a big sighting comes along, and it’s time to find out if all this hard work is going to pay off. Too bad for VanOwen and the rest of his team that everyone who’s read this script has fallen asleep by this point and will never find out what happens. Including Steven Spielberg himself.
This was baaaaaad. Michael Jackson Bad. Jamon.
I’m not even sure what I just read.
It’s funny. There are always these stories about these “alternate drafts” of famous movies that are so much better than what was filmed. EVERY TIME I’ve read one of these supposed “better” drafts, they’ve turned out to be awful.
It’s geeks trying to conjure up controversy despite it making ZERO sense to film an inferior draft. I mean, why would anybody knowingly do that? At worst, the other drafts are DIFFERENT. A different vision from a different person. But they’re never better.
With that said, there are still a couple of debate-worthy screenwriting topics here. The first is our main character. Schrader’s hero is a military man right in the middle of the action. Whereas Spielberg’s Roy Neary was a nobody family man nowhere near the action.
If you’re a studio, you’re probably favoring Schrader’s hero. You typically want your main character as close to the action as possible. And if VanOwen is an air force UFO investigator, he’s going to be have lots of opportunities to get into interesting situations with UFOs, the military, and the government.
Roy Neary has to see all of these things from the outside, which is arguably not as interesting.
But maybe this is part of Spielberg’s genius. Despite so many writers favoring the military man route, Spielberg’s always liked the “ordinary man stuck in an extraordinary circumstance” setup. And I think it works because the ordinary man is more relatable. I don’t personally know any CIA or FBI agents. But I know plenty of regular dudes. It could easily be you, then, who had that close encounter. You’re just like Roy Neary!
But where Spielberg really shows his brilliance is in how he takes everything that Schrader TELLS, and turns it into a SHOW. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. Show don’t tell. This is Screenwriting 101, arguably the first thing they teach you about the medium. For Schrader to have no concept of SHOW DON’T TELL is baffling.
His entire opening is people talking about their sightings. We don’t see any sightings. We just hear people talking about their sightings. How does Spielberg start Close Encounters? It’s show after show after show. It’s the air traffic room sequence. It’s running into a desert to see a bunch of planes that went missing 30 years ago having returned out of nowhere. It’s giant groups of people chanting a mysterious alien melody.
And if there’s a lesson to learn from this abysmal script, it’s that. Scharder was thinking LIKE A WRITER. Spielberg was thinking LIKE A FILMMAKER. He realized he had to SHOW the audience something. That having characters engage in pages of recollections about the UFOs they saw wasn’t going to be interesting to watch. So keep that in mind guys. You’re writers. But you’re writers FOR THE SCREEN.
Kingdom Come becomes laughably bad as it continues. At one point, VanOwen shows up at his old family home, 15 years after he suddenly disappeared from his family’s lives, and his wife is surprised by his arrival for all of one second before she casually suggests, “Come inside. Let’s talk about what you’ve been up to.”
The dialogue here is routinely awful. Here’s an example. Late in the script, a couple of years after Project Grief has dispersed, VanOwen, still working for the government, runs into Judy, an ex-member of the group. She starts the conversation…
“What are you doing? What’s going on?”
“Judy, you know I can’t tell you. You’re on the outside now.”
“I can keep a secret.”
“But I can’t tell you.”
“But I spent four years in the Project. It was a very big part of my life. I have to know if anything’s happened.”
“Come on, let’s have lunch and talk about other things. Let’s enjoy the sunshine.”
I mean, in a way, it’s almost encouraging. You have this titan of screenwriting writing garbage dialogue. If he struggles, it’s obviously okay for the rest of us to struggle as well.
Schrader keeps the hits coming, at one point sending us out into the stars and into a nebula shaped like a vagina. I guess the acid really was flowing back in the 70s.
I can only imagine Spielberg taking one look at this script and saying, “What the fuck is wrong with you, dude? I’m trying to make a movie here. Not Easy Rider 2: A Junkie’s Jaunt Through the Milky Way” (but, you know, in that nice Spielberg way where he doesn’t let on that he’s never going to call you again).
I wish I could say there was anything good about this but there isn’t. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of an interstellar vagina.
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Make sure to have a plan for your script beyond your first act. Or else after the act is over, you’ll be flailing in the wind trying to come up with plot beats and story threads. And you’ll convince yourself that it’s coming together. But trust me. When the reader reads it, they know you have no clue where you’re going. I say this because Schrader at least knew what he wanted to do with the first act here – send VanOwen to a town that was experiencing a UFO flap. But he didn’t have a clue what was going to come next. And it caught up to him. The power of outlining, guys!
Premise: After a military helicopter pilot is badly injured, the U.S. Government turns him into the most highly evolved human, and most dangerous weapon, on the planet.
About: Wahlberg’s supposedly been looking for a big franchise for awhile now. And The Six Billion Dollar Man (an upgrade of the 1970s TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man) appears to be it. The script here is written by Argentinian Damian Szifron, who will be making his American writing-directing debut with this film.
Details: 124 pages
Normally, you wouldn’t see me reviewing a Mark Wahlberg vehicle. Wahlberg and I have been on shaky ground ever since he voiced his life-long dislike for Star Wars. Until he calls me up to apologize, I’m staying away from his projects.
But today’s script is different. That’s because it’s written by Damian Szifron. Szifron wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of 2015, Wild Tales, a wacky and wonderful collection of short films that’s unlike anything you’ve seen. Seriously, go rent it right now.
Color me curious, then, how he ended up on this project. Despite the greatness of Wild Tales, there was nothing in the film that indicated he’s the right guy to write a great big Hollywood action film.
And my skepticism wasn’t helped when I opened the script file, which boasted an entire screenplay in the wrong font. But I’m trying to stay optimistic. I just put a script in my Top 25 that was 73 pages long. Who’s to say a wrong-fonted script couldn’t follow suit? Let’s find out.
Steve Austin is a 25 year-old crop duster when two 767s hit the Twin Towers in New York. Steve, inspired by his father, joins the military to go into Iraq and Murica some ter-rists!
But during his first mission, piloting a Blackhawk helicopter, he’s shot down and assumed dead. That is until Steve wakes up 15 years later on a hospital bed with a whole bunch of scientists looking down at him.
Steve’s new friends inform him he’s been injected with six billion (with a “B”) dollars worth of upgrades, making him the single most expensive soldier in the world. After a cool little montage of Steve learning all his new abilities (yes, his high jumping power is featured prominently), he’s sent on his very first mission, where he rescues a bunch of hostages from some terrorists.
Steve’s feeling conflicted about his new job though, particularly the fact that he’s lost all his freedom in what’s supposed to be the freest nation in the world. That sounds a bit Murica backwards to me.
And when Steve falls in love with a lovely bookstore owner, Miriam, she only reinforces this idea. In fact, she does some research on the corporation that’s turned Steve into a weapon, only to find out they’re connected to some Nazi scientists who were doing experiments on Jews in World War 2!
So Steve’s going to have to make a tough decision. Does he keep working for the company that’s helping keep the country safe? Or does he expose them for the morally suspect practices they endorse?
I feel sorry for true artists who are pulled into the Hollywood system.
This industry has a way of neutralizing everything that made them stand out in the first place.
It’s like if Miles Davis were asked to play trumpet in a pop band. The second he started riffing into one of his legendary improvisations, they’d turn to him and say, “Yo Miles! Just play the fucking song.”
That feels like what’s going on here with Szifron.
With that said, Szifron isn’t completely free from criticism here.
Some of the dialogue in this script is tough to read, with a lot of the early stuff being achingly on-the-nose. For example, an early conversation between Steve and his dad reads like this: “I want to be proud of myself, dad. Take a risk for once in my life.” “Then go all in, do it. Apply to NASA!” “Not with my grades. I’ll never get in.”
With that said, nobody’s coming to this movie to hear great dialogue. Most people come to big Hollywood movies for one reason and one reason only: to see them deliver on the promise of their premise.
What that means is, Six Billion Dollar Man is about a man who has six billion dollars worth of weapons-related enhancements in his body. People are coming to that film to see fresh, cool, original body-weapon-enhancement shit that they’ve never seen before. As long as you give the audience that which you promised? They’ll give you a feee pass on dicey dialogue and problematic plotting.
Unfortunately for Six Billion Dollar Man, it’s entering the market during the golden age of comic book movies, a world where EVERY SINGLE WRITER is trying to come up with fresh, cool, original body-weapon-enhancement shit. And in many ways, those writers have it easier. Cause they can draw on supernatural abilities. The Six-Billion Dollar Man has to keep its powers grounded.
Enhanced eye sight? Enhanced jumping-power? Enhanced hearing? A really strong arm? Am I paying 20 bucks to see these things?
I don’t want to go on one of my big rants here. But the proof is in the pudding. Stale concepts lead to stale execution. You can’t find original scenes and set pieces inside of ideas that have been done to death. I mean how many original ways can you write a spy-like character, even one with powers, taking down a group of terrorists?
They’ve all been done before. I challenge you. Right now. Come up with a terrorist take-down that’s never been done before. You can’t do it. Because you’re competing against too many shows and movies that have covered the same ground.
Contrast this with a movie like Inception. Inception had all these weird original scenes (people fighting each other in a gravity-shifting environment) because the concept itself was weird and original. When you start from a place of uniqueness, you open up a sort of “unique porthole,” which gives you access to scenes that nobody’s seen before because nobody’s bothered to go down those roads yet.
The only time unoriginal concepts work is when the director has some sort of unique stylistic take. John Wick is a good example. If you dress that movie down, it was one of a thousand guy-with-a-gun movies. But the directors had a really cool style and were able to use that style to cover up the script’s weaknesses. If you doubt that, talk to anyone who read the script before it was made. Many people considered it one of the worst scripts of the year. I mean, a guy goes on a Russia Mafia revenge trip because of a dog.
I should also point out to studios that if you’re going to revive old IP, you don’t want it to be the kind of IP that has inspired dozens of ripoffs in the years since it came out. I mean everything from Robocop to Deadpool has been using the genetically enhanced human being thing. If you’re going to come in after those updates, you’re going to have to update your own IP to a place where it feels fresh and different. And, unfortunately, Six Billion Dollar Man didn’t do that.
The script does start to ask some challenging questions about personal freedom in its later chapters but, again, that’s not why we come to see The Six Billion Dollar Man. We come to see The Six Billion Dollar Man to see six billion dollar set pieces. Shit that nobody’s ever done on screen. And I didn’t see that here.
I do want to give credit to Szifron for one thing before I end this review though. He wrote the best tongue-in-cheek line in a script I’ve read all year. Here he is describing Miriam, the bookstore character Steve falls in love with.
“Because she’s kind and lovely and has been cast perfectly in the role, we love this woman.”
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s some IP that carries well over time, and some that doesn’t. Action IP does not. What was interesting action-wise 40 years ago is not interesting today. Which means if you’re going to mine IP that old, you have to completely reinvent the character. In contrast, horror IP travels well. What was scary 40 years ago can still be scary today. Case in point. “It.”
Logan Martin’s script, “Meat,” becomes the first amateur script to make it into my Top 25 in over 5 years!!
Premise (from writer): A misanthropic man notices bizarre changes in himself, his wife, and the animals inhabiting the territory around their homestead as they attempt to survive self-imposed isolation.
Why You Should Read (from writer): After moving from North Dakota post-college at the end of 2016, I started to write scripts in my spare time and fell in love with it. My first screenplay placed in the top 20% of the 2017 Nicholl fellowship, and as of now I’ve “finished” five features and am working on my sixth. I aim to create original, meaningful stories, but even more so focus on presenting them in a unique way. MEAT has been compared to The Witch by readers due to its low budget, as well as its setting and tone. It’s an unconventional horror story that poses a moral question without appearing pretentious.
Writer: Logan Martin
Details: 72 pages!
Okay, I have to admit I’m a little nervous. I like this script so much. And I’m afraid I’m not going to convey all the reasons why in this review. I’m not going to articulate something or I’m going to forget a key reason for its awesomeness.
But the biggest thing I want to get across is that this is one of the best ways to break in as a screenwriter. Find a topic that interests you, come up with a story, then tell it in a way that best shows off your voice.
Because beyond this just being a great script, it’s a tremendous showcase for the unique way in which the writer sees the world.
Does that mean Meat’s perfect? That’s a tough question to answer. It’s perfect for what it is, for what it’s trying to be. But as a piece of screenwriting, it’s filled with lots of “mistakes” and rule-ignoring. However, I contend that following the rules is how you write a good screenplay, but breaking the rules is how you write a great one.
Meat introduces us to 30-something couple Ben and Rein. Ben and Rein are normal adults in every way but one – they live in the middle of nowhere, off the grid.
We learn later that they both had normal jobs, lived in the city. But at a certain point they became exhausted by the monotony of it all – the rat race, that thing all of us get sick of sooner or later. The difference is, Ben and Rein decided to do something about it. Or, maybe it was more Ben than Rein. But we’ll get into that more in a second.
When these guys say “off the grid,” they really mean, “off the grid.” To the point where they’re hunting their own food. Ben enjoys the thrill of the hunt, and he’s got a particularly healthy deer population to shoot away at. They also have rabbits skittering about, chickens, and a couple of pigs (Bert and Ernie) in their mini-barn next door.
Every night, Ben prepares some juicy red MEAT for dinner. He takes pride in the fact that he’s killed and prepared the meal. So there’s nothing that makes him happier than sitting with Rein after a long day and eating. That juicy bloody dripping red… meat.
The only thing left in life that agitates Ben is going into town. There are still supplies the two can’t obtain on their own. And so a few times a year, Ben has no choice but to make that trip to the grocery store and stock up on necessities. Ben dislikes his latest experience so much, he proposes to Rein cutting the store out completely so that they’ll finally, officially, off the grid. Rein’s hesitant but if it’s what Ben wants, she supports him.
As the days go by, we get the sense that Rein is having some regrets about this new life of theirs. It’s not blatant. She’s always agreeable and on board with her husband’s choices. But Rein may not have envisioned that “off the grid” was this off the grid.
And so one day she drops a bombshell on Ben. She no longer wants to eat meat. Ben stares at her, stumped. Hunting, preparing, cooking – they’re his favorite thing to do for her. “Why?” is all he can think of to say. While she doesn’t say it then, it’s clear that the process of killing animals and eating them has started to affect her. “Well, if that’s what you want,” Ben concedes.
And while they don’t know it yet, that tiny choice is the beginning of the end. Without a sufficient amount of food and protein, Rein starts getting thinner and thinner. Ben is increasingly frustrated with her decision, but he’s dealing with his own issues. Not long after that day, Ben goes hunting, and when he lines up a deer in his scope, he sees that a second deer, next to it, is… STANDING UP ON TWO FEET. As if talking. Ben lowers the rifle to watch the deer disappear into the woods.
Ben’s shaken by the experience as it was just so real.
As time goes by, Rein becomes more resistant to Ben’s hunting, and seems to be getting too close to the animals, particularly Bert and Ernie, their pigs. One day, one of the pigs gets out of its pen, and Ben goes chasing after it, following its tracks in the snow. To his shock, after awhile, the tracks turn from four separate feet… to just two.
And if that isn’t bad enough, the next time Ben goes hunting, he gets shot at. What the hell is going on? When he comes home later to find that Rein has made dinner with three table places instead of two, the truth of just how fucked up things have gotten comes to light. But what Ben doesn’t know is that it’s gotten far worse than he can imagine. And that he finally may be the hunted, rather than the hunter.
Oh man. Where do I start with how good this was!
Let’s start at the top and discuss the TENSION in Ben and Rein’s relationship, something that was felt from the get-go. This choice was paramount to the script working because, remember, 80% of this script is two characters. So you need some sort of conflict to make that interesting for that long. By adding this underlying tension to Ben and Rein’s relationship, you build SUBTEXT into every conversation they have. Every word has an additional meaning. A simple “How are you?” doesn’t mean “How are you?” It means, “Why aren’t you talking to me? Why are you acting so weird? Did I do something wrong? I’m trying to be respectful here and not push but I’m getting frustrated.”
This is something newbie screenwriters don’t get. Every time a character in one of their scripts says, “How are you?” it literally means, “How are you?” Which is boring. And that’s not to say sometimes “How are you?” can’t mean “How are you?” But it’s when EVERY line is literal that dialogue becomes patently boring. This is where the critique, “Your dialogue is on-the-nose” comes from.
Martin needed to stick the landing on that relationship because, as many of you noticed, there wasn’t any GSU in Meat! “Yo Carson. Didn’t you say all scripts need GSU to be good? Why you lie?” Sheesh, get your bloody meat hooks off me. GSU is the main ingredient required for mainstream genre screenwriting – horror, thriller, action, adventure, sci-fi. But it isn’t a writer’s only option. And it’s used less frequently with indie fare, which is what Meat is.
If you’re not going to utilize the GSU formula, your next best option is creating a dramatic question that drives the narrative. That’s a fancy way of saying: Have an overarching question that the audience wants to see resolved. In the case of Meat, it’s “Are these two going to make it?” It will, of course, be up to the individual reader to determine whether that question is interesting enough for them to be invested. And I would assume that, for some of you, it wasn’t. You didn’t care if these two “made it” or not.
This is the danger of moving away from heavy horsepower storytelling tools like GSU (goal, stakes, urgency). Is that people with short attention spans or less interest in the psychological battles of characters aren’t going to jump on board.
But see, this is why I think Meat is so great. It’s not just about the frame-battle between its two main characters. Martin starts adding little mysteries here and there that add layers to the story. When Ben starts seeing animals propped up on two legs talking, it’s like, what the fuck is going on? And when he starts getting shot at, it’s like, who’s shooting at him?? It could be their neighbors, it could be Rein, it could also be… the animals he’s been hunting.
And there’s actually one big advantage to a non-GSU script. It’s easier for the writer to stay ahead of the reader. If your hero has a clear goal, like getting the Ark of the Covenant or killing the terrorists, there aren’t a ton of ways to achieve that goal. As readers, we have a good sense of how things are going to play out, even if we don’t know the exact path by which we’ll get there.
Without that clear end point, the writer can yank the reader around in a multitude of unexpected directions because the narrative isn’t being pulled towards an obvious one (kill the terrorist). And that’s why I enjoyed this so much. I had no idea where it was going, pretty much up until the final page. And I can count the number of times that’s happened in the past year on one hand.
Now a lot of you may point out the short page count. And yes, I agree that that’s a problem. The industry standard for a feature is between 90-120 pages, with the sweet spot being between 100-110. However, if you are going to make a mistake in this area, it’s better to be on the low end (less than 90) than the high (over 120).
I fought with the 75 page count for awhile, wondering if it was because of the lack of dialogue. Dialogue takes up more space, so if you don’t use a lot of it, your script is going to be shorter. And there wasn’t a lot of dialogue here. Which I liked, by the way. It made it so that each time there was a conversation, that conversation had weight.
In the end though, I think this needs to be beefed up (no pun intended). You need one more subplot. And I’m not sure where that’s going to come from. I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments. I’m thinking Ben gets most of the focus here. So a subplot that focuses on Rein would be nice. Maybe something where she spends more time with the pigs and chickens, especially since the pig payoff in the end is so great. If we can just get this up to 85 pages, I think you’ve got enough for a feature.
Man, I really liked this. Never has a sentence as simple as, “I don’t want to eat meat anymore,” shaken me so much. And that’s a testament to Logan and his amazing ability to capture the depth of this fractured relationship. I mean hell, this script even had a dream sequence in it (a HUGE Scriptshadow no-no) that a I liked. Has the screenwriting sky fallen?
I would love for “Meat” to get as much publicity as possible because I think it deserves to make the Black List. It’s exactly the kind of script they used to celebrate before they went all true-story/biopic. Hopefully the industry recognizes that it’s still possible to write original unique stories. Great job, Logan. I hope this script jump-starts your career!
Script link: Meat
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!!!)
[ ] genius
What I learned: Learn to dramatize your ideas. Say you want to make a statement about our society’s obsession with killing and eating animals. The bad writer will come up with a series of scenes of characters debating the issue. “Meat eating is bad.” “But we were put on this earth to hunt. We need food.” “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, no one would eat meat anymore.” Watching and listening to shit like that is nauseating. As a writer, what you want to do is DRAMATIZE your idea, like Logan did with “Meat.” In order to make a statement about this topic, he placed two characters up in the middle of nowhere where they had to hunt their own food then had one of the characters no longer want to participate, leading to an organic exploration of the moral implications of an animal-killing meat-eating culture. Always look to dramatize your ideas!
Holy shit, guys.
Okay, here’s the deal. I read this script this morning with the plan to get a review up quickly afterwards.
All of that changed when it became apparent that this was the best amateur script I’ve read all year. Guys, this script is really REALLY good. Like, really good. And this writer deserves a lot more than a quickly written review.
So here’s what we’re gonna do. I want you to read this script over the weekend. I’ll then give it a proper review on Monday and we can all discuss it.
Screenplay Link: MEAT
For those who missed last weekend’s Amateur Offerings, the script is titled “MEAT” and here’s Logan Martin’s submission details.
Premise: A misanthropic man notices bizarre changes in himself, his wife, and the animals inhabiting the territory around their homestead as they attempt to survive self-imposed isolation.
Why You Should Read: After moving from North Dakota post-college at the end of 2016, I started to write scripts in my spare time and fell in love with it. My first screenplay placed in the top 20% of the 2017 Nicholl fellowship, and as of now I’ve “finished” five features and am working on my sixth. I aim to create original, meaningful stories, but even more so focus on presenting them in a unique way. MEAT has been compared to The Witch by readers due to its low budget, as well as its setting and tone. It’s an unconventional horror story that poses a moral question without appearing pretentious.
Congrats to Logan for getting my first amateur IMPRESSIVE rating of the year!!!
Has it happened yet?
The It backlash?
I’ve found that each year, the post-success backlash leash gets shorter and shorter. So has it happened yet for It?
I don’t know about you folks. But I think this movie is great. It’s the kind of movie that reminds you of why we go to the movies. Not just to see a bunch of pretty pixels clash, but to meet people, get to know people, have an experience with them, see them overcome things.
I love this message that we’re stronger together than we are apart. As I’ve told you guys before, I believe the best themes are the most universal. “It” proves that.
So all you haterz? Just stop.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk script changes. “It” endured a long development process that saw writers and directors come and go. At one point True Detective director Cary Fukunaga was going to helm the project, and that’s what got the world excited in the first place. The guy who did that fucked up show was in charge of Stephen King’s most fucked up story? Sign me up!
But things got delayed, schedules got screwed up, and away Cary went. So one of the big questions has been, what was Fukunaga planning to do with the property? What was his (and co-writer Chase Palmer’s) script like? Lucky for you guys, I’ve read it. And I’m going to give you the lowdown.
Since this is a screenwriting site, I’m going to focus on the screenwriting changes. And to that I’ll say this: The script didn’t change that much. However, there are a lot of little screenwriting changes that are relevant to geeks like you and me. Are you ready to check them out? Good. Jump on my homemade raft. Don’t worry. You’ll float too.
The first big change I noticed happened in the first scene of Georgie making a paper boat with his brother, floating it down the street, and getting eaten by Pennywise in the gutter. In this early draft, the conversation between Georgie and Pennywise takes only a SINGLE PAGE – just one page of dialogue – before Pennywise kills him.
Gary Dauberman extended that scene waaaaay longer. The onscreen conversation goes on for 3-4 minutes. And that was a much better choice. Whenever you have a great scene setup with a potential dangerous outcome, that’s screenplay gold right there. Those are the situations we wish we could have in every scene. So when you have that, you milk it for as long as possible. And that’s what Dauberman did. And the scene was all the better for it.
The next change I noticed was Stan’s first scare scene. Stan is the young Jewish kid getting ready for his first Bar Mitzvah. He’s going to finally “become a man.” In the movie, his scary scene occurs when he goes into his dad’s library and the weird warped painting dude comes out of the picture and stalks him.
In Fukunaga and Palmer’s draft, Stan goes to the bathroom, and an eerie beautiful naked woman rises from the toilet next to him, asking if he’s ready to become a man. Her lower half still blocked, she tempts Stan with seeing more of her, finally rising up to show that her entire lower half is decrepit and rotting.
This was an interesting dilemma, which of these two scenes to go with, because Fukunaga and Palmer’s scene is more character-based. The woman represents the other side of Stan’s impending manhood. It plays to his eventual transformation. But the painting scene, while having zero thematic connection to anything in the movie, is just scarier.
As screenwriters, we face this dilemma all the time. Do we go with the more entertaining choice or the more relevant choice? It’s never an easy answer and you have to weigh both sides carefully and make the decision you think is best for the script. They probably made the best choice to go with the painting scene.
Next up was the absence, in this early draft, of the New Kids on the Block inside jokes between Beverly and Ben. These jokes played interestingly in my theater and I’m not sure what audiences thought of them as a whole, but here’s why I think Dauberman’s choice to include Donny, Joey, and Marky Mark wins again. In order to convey a bond between characters, you need specificity. You need something beyond “I like you and you like me.” The specificity of that New Kids connection made Beverly and Ben’s friendship more real.
Another change in this draft actually addresses a complaint I brought up in my review of the film. It was there that I questioned if Ben would really follow a trail of spooky flaming eggs into the basement. The point of the scene was to set up the tragedy in Derry 30 years earlier during the Easter Day parade that killed 100 people in a factory fire.
In Fukunaga and Palmer’s draft, this scene doesn’t happen. Instead, the famous fire is set up via the bully character, Henry Bowers. Bowers, after searching for Ben, ends up at the old factory, where he and his cronies search around. They start seeing scary ass shit, including Pennywise.
The reason I think this scene was cut was because we had a ton of main characters to cover. This is the issue you run into whenever you write ensemble scripts (“protagonist as a group”). You have to build depth into each and every character, which takes time. They probably decided that giving a full 5 minutes to the bully character wasn’t time well spent. That as much time as possible should be dedicated to the core group of boys. And so Henry’s factory scene was cut and the Easter spooky scene was shifted over to Ben. Even though it didn’t make sense!
A problem in both drafts seems to be Mike Hanlon (the lone black kid in the group). He has so little to do in the movie that you’re surprised when he actually says anything at all. He gets a little more time here, but not much.
There’s a scene where Mike’s dad tells him about his past and we flash back and we see the KKK and his dad says he saw Pennywise. But obviously none of it made it into the movie. Usually when you’re cutting scenes like that, it’s because you don’t have any confidence in the character.
But there may be a bigger reason, one that more recent readers of It can correct me on if I’m wrong. I seem to remember some HARDCORE exploration of racism in the book. King wrote this back in the 80s, when racism was more rampant. And that sort of defined Mike’s character. I don’t believe today’s audiences wanted to go that deep and the writers recognized that. Which, unfortunately, didn’t leave much for Mike to do but shoot sheep.
Another scene in Fukunaga and Palmer’s script has the kids going to the fireworks show together. Scenes like this are important in group friendship movies because they help solidify the bond in the audience’s eyes. As a writer, you can’t just assume the audience will buy the friendship. You have to SHOW it. However, the scene was erased and I’m guessing it’s because they felt the naked swimming scene was so strong and did such a good job of selling the bonding of these kids that they didn’t need an extra scene to do it.
Aspiring screenwriters everywhere: This is what big time screenwriters get paid for. The people who can do in one scene what it takes others to do in two or three or four – they’re the ones who are going to get the job. Screenwriting is about efficiency. So you have to be able to do a lot inside little spurts of time.
Another big change is how the kids end up in the Neibolt Street haunted house. In the film, they CHOOSE to go in there. In Fukunaga and Palmer’s draft, they get backed in there by Henry Bowers and his goons.
This is the most interesting “It” draft-war debate, in my opinion. Motivating characters to willingly walk towards danger is always tough. So Fukunaga and Palmer made the smart choice of forcing the characters into a place they didn’t want to be in.
On the surface, this seems like the better choice. In the movie, when the kids are in the house, you’re constantly asking, “What are they doing here??” It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But I can understand Dauberman’s reasoning for doing so. It makes the characters a lot more active if they CHOOSE to enter the house. It makes them braver. Dauberman just needed a reason to get them there, so he came up with this whole plotline where all the sewers lined up under the house and, therefore, that’s the most likely place Bill’s missing brother Georgie would be.
In the end, I’m not sure which was the better choice. I like the characters willingly going to and having a purpose to be in the house. But had they been pushed into the house, you wouldn’t have had the problem you had in the movie, which was the characters standing around waiting to be scared. They would’ve been trying to escape the bully and move through the house more quickly.
There were other changes here and there. There’s a flashback 1800s Pennywise Old West scene. There’s more bully stuff. But both scripts are working off the same source material so the stories never stray too far from one another. It’s always interesting, though, observing the different choices a writer makes, what they think is important and unimportant.
I was watching some promotional material for the upcoming “Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s adaptation of the making of the worst movie ever made, The Room. Franco asks the weirdo real-life star of the infamous film, Tommy Wiseau, what part of James’s movie Tommy liked best. Tommy replied, “The way the pool was lit.” Franco laughed, because the pool was like 3 seconds of the entire movie and didn’t have anything to do with anything. It’s an extreme example of how every artist prioritizes things differently.
But in the case of “It,” I honestly don’t think any of these changes mattered. It would’ve been a good movie either way. The source material was too damn strong.