Genre: Sci-fi/Comedy
Premise: (from Black List) In the 1950s, a manufacturing company stirs up controversy when they publish a user’s manual to a time machine called the Gadabout TM-1050.
About: Today’s script finished number 37 on last year’s Black List with 9 votes. The idea came through Safe House (“Edge of Tomorrow”) and Sony, and newbie Ross Evans was brought in to write it.
Writer: Ross Evans
Details: 121 pages

Jack Black for Wilbur?

Most of the Black List scripts these days are World War 2 stories, book adaptations, whatever the current trend is (Jane Wick this year), and biopics, biopics, and more biopics. Man are there are lot of biopics. So it was a nice change of pace to see amongst all that sameness, a classic Spielbergian story aimed squarely at the family crowd. We don’t usually get that in Blacklistville.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another 80s nostalgia bomb with four precocious 12 year-olds making vaguely inappropriate jokes about boobs n stuff. I think that trend’s about to die. Instead, Gadabout is more inspired by Back to the Future. And it does so better than most of the scripts that are inspired by Back to the Future in that it isn’t a beat-for-beat remake of Back to the Future. That’s the good news. But have the 80s Gods blessed it with a totally tubular story? That’s yet to be determined.

After his grandmother, Gennie, dies, a distraught 10 year-old Henry asks his mom if he can stay with Grandpa Wilbur for the night to help him deal with the pain. Grandpa Wilbur’s a bit of a weirdo and says that Henry can do anything he wants while he’s here, except go into his shed. That’s his sacred place.

Being a 10 year-old boy, that’s the first place Henry goes, and it’s there where he finds a manual for the Gadabout TM-1050 time machine, written by… his grandpa! No sooner has he found it than Wilbur appears, upset that Henry broke his one rule. But after Henry puts on the charm, Wilbur decides to tell him the story of the Gadabout.

Flash back to 1958, when Wilbur was a young inventor, trying to make his way. Wilbur was a classic scatterbrain inventor – good at inventing, terrible at explaining. So when he pitches his giant box called “The Go-Backer” to the bank in hopes of securing funding, they laugh him out of the room.

Once home, a young Gennie tells Wilbur she can’t wait for him to follow his dreams anymore and walks out on him. Only minutes later, Don, a sketchy vacuum salesman, arrives at the door and notices the time machine. Curious, he wants to know how it works. After Wilbur proves to him it’s the real deal, Don tells him that all it needs is a new name, a shiny makeover and they’ll make millions.

True to his word, it isn’t long before everyone in town owns a Gadabout. But there are limitations. Due to power restrictions, you can only go back 30 minutes in time. And traveling to the future requires more power than anyone can produce. So you can forget about that. Still, that’s enough for people to do stuff like re-run their dates if they go bad, or pick up an extra 30 minutes around the house if they’re running late.

It’s when Don wants to go national that things become a problem, particularly because the machine is faulty. For example, a local Gadabout addict has over 20 versions of herself living in her house. All of this leads us to the ultimate question, and the one Henry himself wants to know: If all of this really happened, how come nobody’s ever heard about it?

I’ll never forget a note I received on one of my first screenplays. “It’s all rather… easy.” I must’ve sat on that note for a month. Easy? Easy?? I’ll show you “easy” you ignorant mother&*%$#. It took time. And Bob’s Corner Liquor Store. But I eventually figured out what he meant. There wasn’t a whole lot of conflict in my screenplay. There weren’t any obstacles. If the script were a rollercoaster, it was one that went in a straight line with a few mildly high rises and a few mildly low dips.

For the majority of its running time, that’s how Gadabout felt to me. It was all very pleasant and sweet and nice. But it was one hell of a straight roller-coaster ride. Nothing went too well and nothing went too bad. Eventually, things do get out of hand and the blood starts pumping. But that isn’t until page 80. And that’s a really long time to wait for the good stuff.

Cause that’s all storytelling is when you think about it. It’s the storyteller manipulating the emotions of the story reader. And it’s not a bad kind of manipulation. The reader WANTS to be manipulated. They want those high highs and low lows. I mean look at a film this script was clearly inspired by, The Princess Bride. That movie probably has more highs and lows then any family film ever. Within the first 15 minutes, our princes is kidnapped by three bad men. The emotional manipulation starts immediately.

And that was my frustration here. I never felt anything throughout the first 80 pages of the script.

Part of the problem is that it wasn’t clear what was at stake. The only question that’s being asked is, if all this time machine stuff happened, how come there’s no record of it? And while that’s a fun mystery, it’s not enough to carry an entire movie.

Since the love of Wilbur’s life, Gennie, dies at the beginning of the story, why not build a high-stakes storyline around that? Maybe he never got to tell her something. And if he still had a Gadabout, he’d have the chance to go back and have one last conversation with her. But the Gadabout doesn’t work anymore. It’s permanently damaged. And so the flashback storyline is setting up a present-day storyline that actually matters, because maybe Wilbur realizes how to make the fix that gives him one more time-travel.

I admit that’s clumsy because I’m thinking it up on the spot. But this script needed something LIKE that. Where something BIG matters. Because there wasn’t once here where I said, “Ooh, I HAVE to find out what happens with that.” And with every screenplay, you want to have four or five of those things.

None of this is to say the script is bad. It’s fine. The last act is actually balls-to-the-wall crazy, as we start jumping all the hell over time. The question is, will people be able to muscle through a day-long walk in the park to race the Indy 500? I guess that depends on how much you like walking in the park.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: When it comes to time travel scripts, you need restrictions so every time your hero fails at something, the audience doesn’t say, “He’s got a time machine. Why can’t he go back and try again?” One of the best ways to combat this plot hole, and it’s something we see in Gadabout, is POWER RESTRICTIONS. You can always say that the time machine takes up so much power that it has limitations in how much it can be used and for how long. It’s logical and it saves you from having to deal with a bunch of “But why didn’t they just…” questions.

What I learned 2: If you’re going to write a time travel movie, I recommend doing a time-travel comedy. Time-travel is a complicated concept that, the more you use it, the more plot holes it creates. When you write a comedy, people are more forgiving of these holes as they don’t need everything to make perfect sense.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A murderous couple in hiding is discovered by the FBI and must take their teenaged son, who has no idea about their past, on the run.
About: Andrew Marlowe has the right idea. Write a few big blockbuster features (Air Force One, End of Days), then, when you realize that surviving the feature world is like trying to survive the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, ditch that nonsense and create a successful TV show (Castle), which turns your bank account into a money printer, then buy a 10 million dollar house in the hills. You won’t live next to Ryan Murphy. But you’ll be doing all right for yourself. Today’s script, In Hiding, was a Marlowe spec from 1998 (a year before End of Days came out) that sold to Arnold Kopelson, the producer of The Fugitive and Seven. It didn’t get made. Let’s find out why.
Writer: Andrew W. Marlowe
Details: 121 pages – 1998 draft

Today we’re talking about premise. (reference: meant to be read in Allen Iverson’s voice)

Specifically the promise you make to your reader with your premise, and delivering something that stays true to that promise.

Okay, parameters set. Scriptshadow machine calculating. Bee-bee-boop-boppppppp, chuckuhchuckuhchuckuh, leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevlop. Real-time plot summary code activated…

A group of mysterious people invade a warehouse, which turns out to be a storage facility for nuclear warheards. A second group of people confronts the first group, a gunfight ensues, and the whole place blows up, with only a handful of people from both sides escaping.

Cut to 14 years later. Jake and Carolyn Brighton are two normal suburban parents. Jake owns a paint shop and Carolyn works in a department store. Everything’s dosey-doe until the FBI charge into Jake’s paint shop. Jake’s on pins and needles until the FBI tells him his employees are running the biggest Drug Ring in the area. That news seems to… calm Jake?

Wait a minute. Who relaxes after they’ve been told their business is a front for a drug ring?? Immediately we know Jake is hiding something. And the lead FBI agent, Irene, senses it. She brings Jake down to the field office for questioning.

In the script’s best scene (seriously – you should all download the script and read it to see what a taut exciting suspenseful thriller scene looks like) Jake contacts his wife to tell her they’re “running his prints.” Based on Carolyn’s reaction, that’s bad. As the prints are running, Irene gets into an argument with her superior about keeping Jake here. He doesn’t think Jake’s done anything wrong and orders her to release him.

She reluctantly does, only to find out when the prints come back that he and his wife are wanted for 7 murders. Cut to Jake and Carolyn, who are racing to pick up their 14 year old son, Travis, from school. With the cops and FBI closing in, they grab Travis and narrowly escape, leaving them with a new problem. Explaining to their son they’ve been lying to him his entire life.

What we learn is that Jake and Carolyn were there that day of the warehouse explosion and were framed by the government to cover up the real reason they had a bunch of warheads stashed there. Due to the nuclear fallout, the government covered the destruction up with concrete. That leads to Jake getting an idea. Some of the military guys that day got buried in the mess. What if they go back and dig them up to prove their innocence! It’s a long shot, but it’s the only shot they’ve got!

Okay!

I want you to imagine something for me. Imagine I tell you I have a movie idea: “The Fugitive… but with a family.” I even do that thing with my hands where I hold them in front of my face then expand them out, for effect. Granted this pitch would’ve worked better 20 years ago, it still ain’t half-bad today. Okay, you’ve heard the premise. Now you ask me to pitch the plot. So I tell you, “It’s about this family who has to go on the run from the FBI which we later reveal is because they murdered 7 people!” You’re nodding your head furiously. “Ooh, I like that,” you say. “Murder is good.”

I continue on: “So what we find out is that our couple was framed for going to this warehouse where it turned out there were secret nuclear weapons and then they were shot at, barely got out, but the government needed to make sure they didn’t give the secret away so they told everyone that they murdered seven people! Now they have to go back there, dig into the wreckage, pull out one of the bodies, and take it to the FBI to prove their innocence!”

RECORD SCRATCH.

“Say what?”

This is my long-winded way of saying that the payoff of this premise doesn’t match up with the promise. The promise is cool. Family on the run from the FBI. The Fugitive with a family. They killed 7 people. Who were those people? Why did they kill them? Great mystery. I’m all in. But warheads? Nuclear fallout? What?? That doesn’t sound anything like what I imagined when you pitched me the movie.

One of your jobs as a writer is to deliver what you promised. I’ll give you a recent example of a failed promise. Book of Henry. You had this kid who was a genius and he’s quirky and smart and then he gets cancer. I’m not saying that’s a good idea, but it’s an idea. What the movie delivers instead is a dark murder revenge flick??? Giving the audience something other than what you promised is one of the quickest ways to piss them off.

There’s no set method for avoiding this mistake. It’s a “feel” thing. For every big choice you make (a major plot development), you need to ask yourself if that choice lines up with the movie you promised or if it makes the script feel like a completely different movie. Some writers will argue that an ‘out there’ choice makes their script unpredictable. And there are a few examples of that working. But I’m telling you as someone who reads all these scripts, 99 times out of 100 it ends up in The Book of Henry.

This speaks to a bigger problem with on-the-run thrillers, which is that while they’re easy to set up, and often have killer first acts (again, read that early scene I told you about), they can easily deteriorate into a series of mindless running around scenes. Inventive set pieces can help spice things up. But how many never-before-seen-set-pieces are you going to think up? Considering you’re competing with tens of thousands of thrillers, not many. The golden solution, like a lot of solutions in screenwriting, is character. It’s why Taken and The Fugitive remain the gold standards for this genre. In both cases, there was a very emotional and personal goal for the hero. Save my daughter. And find out who killed my wife to prove my innocence.

It’s no different from why Black Panther had one of the best villains in the Marvel Universe. His plight was PERSONAL. The current king’s father killed Killmonger’s dad and left Killmonger to rot in the streets of Oakland. It wasn’t like Ultron in Avengers, who nobody knew what the hell he wanted.

So that’s my big lesson. Thrillers are Thinners. They’re inherently thin plots. The best way to thicken them up is to build a storyline around complex characters with personal goals.

May this help Thriller writers everywhere!

Bee-beep-boooooops. Scriptshadow machine powering down….

Script link: In Hiding

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It’s okay to use age-old cliches in your script, as long as you execute the cliche differently than what’s expected. When Jake is first brought to the station, they put handcuffs on him. While they’re distracted, he sees a paper clip. He slyly reaches over and palms it. AGE-OLD CLICHE ALERT!!! I audibly groaned when I read this. As Irene is chatting with her co-worker about whether to keep Jake there, we’re cross-cutting to Jake fiddling with his cuffs. As the conversation reaches a climax, Irene is told she has to release Jake. Cut to Jake, just as he’s uncuffed himself. As soon as he hears this, he clamps the cuffs closed again. I’d never seen that before. In all the scrips I’ve read, every time someone with cuffs uses a paper clip, they uncuff themselves. It’s a little thing but every time you go against expectation, you impress the reader.

Genre: Superhero
Premise: (from IMDB – the worst logline writing site ever) T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.
About: Going into 2018, Black Panther was seen as the weakest of the four Marvel offerings being released. But after a shocking weekend where it made over 200 million dollars (for the 4-day haul), it may prove to be the best return on investment of all four films. The movie stars a predominantly black cast, a first for a mainstream comic book movie, as well as being directed by a black director, Ryan Coogler. The film is now the highest box office release ever in the month of February.
Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
Details: 135 minutes

I suppose it was inevitable that the media would politicize this movie. Politicizing is the new click-bait cuz there’s no money in posting stuff like, “Black Panther was a really good movie!” It has to be, “Black Panther Challenges Hollywood’s Diversity Problem” or “If You Don’t Like Black Panther, You’re a Racist.” I get it. Those titles are more provocative and more likely to make you click. So as long as people keep clicking on them, they’re going to keep posting them!

What’s interesting about Black Panther is Ryan Coogler clearly cared more about making a good movie than starting a movement, which is always the way to go. Nobody cares about your beliefs if they’re wrapped inside a bad story. So Coogler stripped away a lot of the trappings of comic book movies and focused on character development and story. The result is the strongest dramatic offering from Marvel to date. Indeed, this film made me think more than any other Marvel film. It’s a testament to the savvy writing on display from Coogler and Cole.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a seemingly poor country in Africa called Wakanda that has a secret high-tech city in the mountains where they mine Vibrainium, one of the most powerful energy sources in the universe. After their king dies, T’Challa (Black Panther) rises to the throne, intent on keeping Wakanda and its energy source a secret.

However, in London, this dude named Killmonger, a young black mercenary, steals an ancient Wakandan axe from a museum in the hopes that it will lead him to the hidden city. Killmonger eventually finds Wakanda (spoilers!) reveals that T’Challa’s dad killed his own father, demands a ritualistic battle for the throne, gets it, kills T’Challa, and takes over. But, of course, you wouldn’t have a movie called Black Panther where Black Panther died, so BP rises from the dead to take back Wakanda!

Like I said, this Marvel movie makes you think more than any other Marvel film. One of the things that separates professional screenwriters from amateurs is that professionals are always looking for contrast within their characters. If a character is generic and straight forward, he’ll fail to make an impact. Finding the right contrast within a character is often the key to unlocking them.

So here, T’Challa has this energy source that can help so many lives across the planet. However, if he were to announce that to the world, he would have to reveal Wakanda’s secret, something he’s reluctant to do. So here we have a hero with the power to help millions who actively chooses not to. I don’t know of any other hero in the MC universe who’s like that.

On the flip side you have Killmonger, who grew up on the streets of Oakland. He’s our bad guy. And yet the whole reason he wants to get to Wakanda is so he can use their resources to help disenfranchised people around the world. We’re talking about our bad guy here! One of the best lines in the movie is when he tells T’Challa and his council (paraphrasing) “You guys are all sitting pretty up here in your utopia when there are 2 billion people across the world just like us who are starving.” And he’s right!

I’d never seen that kind of maturity in a hero-villain dynamic before, where the villain’s motivation actually made more sense than the hero’s. And it’s a big reason why this was more than your average popcorn flick.

Black Panther also does a great job developing its secondary characters. This is something I also tell newbies. One of the easiest ways to spot a professional is someone who puts just as much effort into developing their supporting characters as they do their main characters.

Nakia and T’Challa are exes, infusing some tension into their relationship. Okoye, the lead guard, is loyal to the throne to a fault, to the point where she supports Killmonger when he becomes king. W’Kabi, the chief defense captain, doesn’t agree with T’Challa’s isolationist ideology, continually pushing him to change his stance. And Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, had more personality in her pinky than the entire DCU. In other words, there was thought put into each and every character here. Nobody was window dressing (well, except for poor Martin Freeman).

And kudos to Coogler and Cole for setting up a hell of a complex mythology. This idea of a secret African country with super-technology right here on earth is by no means an easy sell. Combined with the complexity of the tribal setup itself (I think there were 5 tribes in total), it could’ve easily turned into a head-scratching mess of information. But they lay everything out in a clear visual opening narration (via a father explaining Wakanda to his son) to make sure we knew which way was up.

So with all that praise, I must be giving Black Panther an [x] impressive, right!?

Not exactly.

Black Panther had a major problem. Black Panther himself, T’Challa, was kinda lame. This dates back to a discussion we had on the site a few weeks ago, where we asked if a movie can survive a “vanilla” main character. There were a lot of opinions, with some saying that if you put enough interesting people around the main character, the main character, by association, will become interesting himself. But this movie proves that to be very untrue.

There are three issues here. The first is Chadwick Boseman. Guy’s got a nice smile. He’s got some charisma. But he’s missing SOMETHING. I don’t know what that is. But it says a lot when you’re not even in the top 5 most memorable characters in your own movie.

The second is the writing. While they do give T’Challa that interesting inner conflict, they don’t do enough with it. When you pose the question, “Are we going to help people or aren’t we?” in your movie and then you never answer that question, what was the point of asking it in the first place? That needed more of a payoff.

Finally, while the Black Panther suit is the coolest looking superhero suit in the Marvel universe, it’s the least interesting power-wise. As far as I could tell, his power is, he’s really strong and can’t be hurt? So, um, every other superhero ever? The best superheroes are superheroes with clear – and preferably COOL – powers. If the power is unclear, the superhero’s not going to pop.

This was unfortunate as there were so many great things about this screenplay. However, if you don’t nail your hero, the ceiling for your film is only going to be so high.

The other big issue with the movie was that the action scenes were really bad. The big car chase looked liked someone had cut and pasted a CGI car into the streets of Korea. And the final battle between Black Panther and Killmonger looked like a discarded outtake from the 1982 version of Tron.

There are actually some screenwriting lessons to learn here, although they’re more for those of you working in the professional ranks. Don’t include big animals you’re going to have to CGI in into any big battles. They always look awful. And avoid, if possible, creating an entirely CG environment for any hand-to-hand combat scenes – ESPECIALLY if it’s your climactic scene. It’s going to look bad.

So there you have it. We’ve cut through the hype to give you the real scoop on Marvel’s latest money-maker. It was good. But it made too many mistakes to be great. With that said, I think Wakanda makes the Marvel universe a lot better. We have this awesome energy source just waiting to be tapped. Once a bad guy gets his hands on it, it’s going to be chaos. And I want to be there for when that happens.

[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Two Lowest Points for the price of one! Black Panther reminded me that there are TWO LOWEST POINTS at the end of your movie. The first low point is at the end of the second act. There’s usually some death involved here, since death is the lowest low point you can reach. Here, (spoiler!) it’s Black Panther dying. The SECOND big low-point will happen during the climactic battle. Think of your end battle (or showdown) as its own three-act movie. Therefore, it too will have a lowest point at the end of its second act. This will usually be shown as the villain getting the upper hand and our hero looking defeated. Your hero will then get one last life/chance/burst, and figure out a way to defeat the villain.

Genre: Black Comedy/Drama
Premise: When a 13-year-old social misfit hacks into the financial life of his reclusive 70 year old neighbor and finds she’s being short-changed at her home office job, the two embark on an epic journey to seek justice from the shady for-profit “university” that’s been cheating her for decades.
Why You Should Read: The short version? Lili & Will is dark and funny and has loads of heart, with two very cool parts for an “actress of a certain age,” and pretty much any kid from “Stranger things.” The enhanced version? I’ve been working on this thing for years, and even though lots of people said they loved it, no one ever loved it enough to open a checkbook. At first I shrugged this off to “Nobody wants to make a POKER movie.” Yes, for years this script was about two characters on their way to a poker tournament, and nothing at all like the logline above. But then I got a NOTE I never expected — that my characters were GREAT, but they were drowning in technical b.s. about card playing that bogged everything down. I was DEVASTATED by this, knowing I would have to change pretty much EVERYTHING. But for the first time in my life, I buckled down, took the note, and actually did the work. NEW third act. NEW plot. NEW character arcs. NEW pretty much everything. Anyway, this is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
Writer: Jeff Stein
Details: 110 pages

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 12.44.09 AM

Diane Keaton for Lili?

I’ve read a few of Jeff’s scripts now and whenever I do, I think, “Man this guy has talent. Not only that, but he understands the craft.” Some writers have one, some have the other, but rarely do writers have both. And that’s my conundrum with Jeff. I know he has what it takes. Getting so many votes on this script proves what I’ve always believed. But there’s something in his writing that’s holding him back. And it’s not easy to figure out what.

After reading Lili & Will, I think I have an idea. At some point in his scripts, Jeff makes one major choice that sends his script into Troublesville. And it’s hard to come back from a bad choice. If he can eliminate that mistake, he can thrive. Let’s take a look at his latest!

Lili & Will follows 13 year-old Will, a middle-school nerd who has the unfortunate honor of living with a single mother who strips for a living. Will hopes that one day his mom can quit so they can have a normal life. But things seem to be getting worse, not better. His mom books a “Strip Tour” where she’ll be impersonating a once-famous Playboy Bunny. This should give them some breathing room financially, but it leaves Will alone for the summer.

Concerned, his mom asks the old reclusive weirdo next door, Lili, if she’ll keep an eye on her son. Lili says no thanks. Meanwhile, Will looks into online poker in the hopes of winning big so his mom never has to strip again. He needs a fake ID to sign up, which leads him to Lili. But after sneaking through her computer, he finds out she’s being ripped off by her employer, one of those spammy pyramid schemes that has its “employees” mail thousands of letters to people, paying them fractions of a cent for each one.

When Will tells Lili about the scam, she agrees to drive with him to the company headquarters and shake the CEO down. That’s the plan anyway. Neither Will or Lili know how to drive. They manage though, and do so in style, as it turns out Lily still has her dead brother’s never-driven Roadster.

This oil & water team come from two completely different sides of reality, but develop an operating friendship along the way. Unfortunately, Lili falls ill with a mysterious ailment and must go in for emergency surgery. It’s only when Lili’s life is in danger that Will realizes just how good of a friend she is. But it may be too late for that. Then again, it may not.

The thing I love so much about this script is the pairing. One of the tips I give out when it comes to two-handers is to make sure there’s conflict between the characters. We’re going to be with these two the whole movie so they better not be boring and agreeable the whole time. But a tip I should promote more is to make sure the pairing is INTERESTING. Give us two unique characters. Two people we’ve never seen together before. Or two people so different we have no idea what to expect when they’re thrown together. That’s Lili & Will for you, and it’s the script’s biggest strength.

The script’s got a pretty sweet plot, too. I like that Will initially tries to take advantage of Lili, only to find out that she’s being scammed, and then decides to help her instead. I love that it’s based around one of these pyramid schemes. Everybody hates pyramid schemes so you’ve got the audience 100% on your side from the get-go. It reminded me a bit of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, but with a better concept, since our heroes’ goal was one of justice.

However, once we get on the road, the script hits some rocky patches. The scenes feel rushed, many of them in a “blink and you miss them” manner, as opposed to Jeff stopping, figuring out what the scene is about, and milking everything he can out of the scene. For example, two threatening thugs come up to buy Lili’s car. This scene could’ve easily been 5 pages as we built up the tension behind these guys and whether they were going to do something bad to get the car. Instead it’s 6 lines of dialogue and we’re on to the next scene. This happened a lot.

Compare that to another “car buying” scene, the one in Psycho, where Marion goes to buy a car. But instead of 6 lines, we get a drawn out suspenseful purchase with a cop from across the street watching her every move. I needed the scenes to breathe in Lili and Will, especially because the characters were so good to begin with. Both were perfectly capable of sitting in scenes and talking for a long time.

In regards to the “choices” comment I made, we encounter that problem late in the script. We finally get to the company. They’re getting all jazzed up to go in there and take these scammers down. And ten seconds into a conversation with the manager, Will EXCUSES HIMSELF TO GO THE BATHROOM???? It made absolutely zero sense, both for the story and for the character. This is Will. He’s the “Get it Done” guy. And he leaves during the climactic showdown with the corporate bully? Come on!! That simply cannot happen.

Unfortunately, the script never recovers after this scene. We ditch the more interesting plot that’s been set up for another “We’ll get our money another way” sequence at a local casino. If I were Jeff, I would stick with the taking down the pyramid company plot. That’s where the audience is going to find its satisfaction. But there’s a bigger issue here. Why did Jeff make this choice? Because it’s choices like these that can send a solid script off onto a snowy unmarked road. It feels a bit like an ADD choice – this need to come up with something different, to constantly switch things up, keep giving the audience something new.

You’ve come up with a good plot. TRUST IT. Believe in what you’ve created and stick with it to the end. Nebraska, about a man who begrudgingly drives his elderly father to a lottery office to pick up his “winnings,” doesn’t end with some Rodeo heist that had nothing to do with the original story. It sticks with what we’ve set up.

I really really really want Jeff to succeed, man. He cares so much about this craft. He cares so much about getting better. I mean, “Vlad the Inhaler?” the Russian thug with asthma? Does it get any more genius than that? Or this exchange after Lili and Will first meet – LILI: “Er, would you care to come in for a cup of coffee?” WILL “Well, it’s three in the morning and I’m a kid, but sure.” I read that line five times and laughed harder each time. There are a lot of these genius nuggets scattered throughout Lili & Will. So do me a favor; if you’ve read the script, give Jeff your thoughts on anything you believe could make it, and Jeff, better. Thanks. And thanks to Jeff for letting us read his script!

Script link: Lili & Will

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Treat each scene like a script. Give it your all. You have to make each scene its own little great thing. If you’re writing a bunch of scene-fragments? – stuff that bridges the gap between writing the previous scene and that next scene you REALLY want to write, you’re leaving a lot of dead space in your screenplay.

What I learned 2: If you ever rush though anything in a script, we’ll know. That’s not something you can hide.

One of the more common story setups is the “Group of People Gets Lost In the Woods” scenario, and it’s not surprising why. It fits into a clear genre (Horror), it’s marketable (all horror is), it’s cheap to shoot (all you need is actors and a camera), and there’s something universally scary about getting lost that all audiences can relate to.

The problem is that nearly every one of these scripts is bad. It’s not surprising why. The Lost in a Forest setup is what I call a “45 page idea.” Since there’s only so much you can do walking through a forest (How many times can two characters argue about what to do next?), you inevitably run out of scenes by page 45. That’s the trap of this sub-genre. It looks so easy but it’s deceptively hard to pull off.

The Ritual is one of the few movies to do it. The reason for that you’ll hear from most outlets is the creature design. Indeed, the creature is awesome, unlike anything you’ve seen before. I love how they pull a Jaws, as well, holding it off until the very end of the movie. If you’re a creature geek, you’ll love The Ritual. But that’s not why this movie is so great. It’s great because of a single scene.

For those who don’t have access to Netflix, The Ritual follows four middle-aged friends who hike the Swedish mountains in honor of their friend who was killed in a violent convenience store attack during a robbery. When one of the friends gets injured on the trail, they try to take a short cut through the forest. And that’s where the trouble begins.

Simple premise, right? So why was this version of “Group Gets Lost in a Forest” so much better than the hundreds of others that are so achingly boring?

The second scene of the movie.

Our five friends are at a bar, deciding what their next vacation spot is going to be. There’s Luke, our introspective hero, Hutch, the alpha male of the group, Dom, the chubby dude who always complains, Phil, the anxious one, and Robert, the fun-loving best friend to them all.

After the bar, Luke and Robert head inside a convenience store to grab some beer for the after party while the others wait outside. As they joke around, they glance over to see that the checkout girl is on the floor, bleeding. We see the back door open and two thugs emerge. Robert, who’s closest to them, is frozen, while Luke, due to the angle at which he’s standing, can’t be seen, so he quickly hides at the back of the aisle.

What happens next is what you expect. The thugs demand money and jewelry from Robert, who obliges until he gets to his wedding ring, which he refuses to part with. All this time, Luke is sitting there. These men don’t have guns. He can go help his friend. But he chooses to stay there. The situation escalates and the thugs bash Robert over the head with a bar, killing him.

It’s from there that we cut to the mountain, six months later. Like I said, Dom injures his leg, forcing the group into the forest in pursuit of a short cut, where they start seeing markings on the trees as well as scattered cabins that seem to have been inhabited by people who worship a creature. Before long, they start hearing the creature stalking them. And it picks them off one by one.

Why was this convenience store scene so important?

To understand that, you have to understand what this movie looks like WITHOUT THE SCENE. And I say that because I’ve read TONS of scripts with this setup that didn’t have this scene or a scene like it. And they almost always sucked. Instead of witnessing the traumatic event ourselves, we hear it alluded to in retrospect, we see it in the characters’ eyes, and occasionally hear it in their monologues. Every once in awhile, the writing is so good and the actors’ performances so strong that they take us back to these traumatic moments without having to see them. But usually, since we didn’t see it with our own eyes, we feel nothing for that person or how it’s affected our characters.

What’s that old saying? A picture is worth a thousand words? This may be the world’s best example of that.

The scene in the convenience store is harrowing. It’s shot in a gritty realistic style to ensure it stays with us. That can’t be discounted. But even if we only focus on the script, it’s a great choice because the scene informs EVERYTHING that happens throughout the rest of the film.

For starters, our main character’s flaw is established. He’s a coward. We see him battling this in every single scene. He hates himself. He can’t live that day down. He knows that the reason they’re even in this mess to begin with is because he was too afraid to save his friend. Having a main character not just going through an inner conflict throughout the movie, but one that actually feels authentic and real, turns a basic horror premise into something much deeper.

Second, it affects all the relationships in the movie. Luke’s struggle isn’t just that he was cowardly and didn’t save his friend. It’s that his friends don’t know the truth. All they know is that he was lucky to escape. This means that Luke is also battling the fact that he’s living a lie. That his own friends don’t know he’s responsible for the death of their friend. This informs almost every conversation in the movie. You can see the guilt in his eyes, the regret, the anger at keeping his secret. When you hear criticisms about your dialogue that, ‘there’s no subtext,’ this is one way to create subtext. No conversation here is solely about what’s happening on the surface. There’s always another audio track playing underneath.

But where things get really fun is the creature. Clearly, the creature is used as a symbol of fear. We’re not talking about Pumpkinhead or Freddy here, empty vessels designed for cheap thrills that have no connection to the people they’re stalking. We know that if Luke can defeat this monster, he’ll finally overcome his flaw – his cowardice. That raises the personal stakes of the hero and makes us way more invested than we’d usually be. We want to see Luke stand up to this thing and redeem himself!

Finally, that scene allows us to create scares that are ORGANIC to the story. Pay attention because this is important, guys. What’s the worst kind of scare? An empty jump scare, right? A guy gets out of his tent at night, goes to take a leak, hears something. Then something jumps out of nowhere and attacks him – FLASH – he’s back in his tent. It was just a nightmare! Zoinks!

By setting your movie up with a scene this powerful, you can give us scares that are connected to the story. Some of my favorite scenes were Luke waking up at night, leaving his tent, only to find himself in a hybrid convenience-store-forest setting. There Robert was again, before the thugs kill him. Luke has a chance to redeem himself. But once again, his best friend is slaughtered and – FLASH – he’s right back in the tent. It was a nightmare. You tell me which one of those scares is more effective.

One scene – ONE SCENE – set this all up.

The lesson today isn’t that you should write a horror movie where someone gets killed in the beginning. That’s not what I’m saying. The lesson is that when you have a simple plot such as people getting lost in a forest, you should be utilizing big moments in your first act that affect your main character and as many supporting characters as possible. This will allow there to be something going on beneath the surface throughout every moment of your movie. That will both take the pressure off your plot and give you more places to go, since you’ll be exploring what’s going on INSIDE of your characters as well as outside.