Premise (from writer): Fleeing a violent past, a mechanic relocates to the anarchic edge of civilization to build a new life, and a new body, for her teenage son.
Why You Should Read: I’m a longtime reader, first-time submitter to your site, currently living in Vancouver and working hard on breaking into the industry. I’ve won a few national awards for my stage plays and now I’m finally at the point where I’m feeling confident enough in my screenwriting work to start submitting to competitions.Transference is my latest feature-length screenplay, which my table-reading group said has some strong Mad-Max-meets-Westworld vibes, and I wanted to throw this into the mix with the other Amateur Offerings to see how it stacks up in comparison.
Writer: Andy Garland
Details: 91 pages
As savvy veteran screenwriters have already discussed, Transference was up against the gun from the get-go. This logline had major issues, the biggest of which is that it doesn’t state the central source of conflict in the story. A woman goes to build her son a new body. Where’s the conflict there? It sounded more like a vacation.
Conflict comes from the “but then.” A woman goes to build her son a new body… BUT THEN. But then she encounters resistance from the increasingly hostile locals. Now sometimes, writers are just bad at loglines. I get that. Loglines are weird. Despite being so small, they’re unnecessarily confusing to construct. However, in my experience, when one doesn’t know how to add conflict to a logline, they don’t know how to add conflict period, leaving their screenplay devoid of tension or struggle. Let’s hope that’s not the case with Transference.
The surface of the earth is cooking. We’re somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and as a character will later tell us, because of the last generation’s idiot mistakes, the rest of us are suffering through one continuous bout of really bad sunburn.
Due to the increased temperatures, food has become scarce, and having children is akin to murder. Who would willingly bring a child into a situation where they’ll most certainly starve to death? Or worse. This has led a lot of people transferring their children’s consciousness into robotic bodies.
That’s where our hero Hailey is at. Hailey shows up in some dying bumblefuck town, buys an old shack, and starts using scrap parts to build a body for her son, Jacob, who’s currently living inside an old smartphone.
The plan is to lay low. But law enforcement gets wind of Hailey’s arrival and wants to know what’s up. Hailey keeps them at bay with a payout, but they remain curious, especially when a mysterious new fella rolls into town – Willis. Unlike everybody else in this world, Willis looks like he just rolled off an assembly line. Maybe that’s because he did. Willis, it turns out, is a robot.
And he’s in town looking for Hailey, willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. When Hailey learns that Willis is nearby, she goes full Gepetto, speeding up the process of building her son’s body. The closer Willis gets, the more we learn about why Hailey has to transfer her son, which brings to light a horribly selfish decision she made when she was younger, a decision that would’ve kept her son human.
When you finish a script, you place it in one of three mental categories. Yes. No. Maybe.
Transference falls into Maybe. However, I’m not sure if it’s a Maybe with potential. Or a “not bad” Maybe, the kind that fades from memory after a couple of days.
Transference in an intriguing cross between History of Violence, A.I., and Mad Max. It’s got an extensive badass mythology and some memorable characters to boot. However, it installs a plot mechanism I’ve never liked: Sitting your characters down into a single location and waiting.
Now, it’s not that this setup can’t work. If you keep the conflict coming at your characters and set up some looming danger they’ll have to deal with, you can build enough suspense and intrigue to keep us invested all the way through. The problem, unfortunately, is that because this narrative device is so static, it’s always on the verge of becoming boring, which means you have to be vigilante in constructing plot points and story threads to prevent even the slightest lull.
It’s different than something where characters are always on the move. The ever-changing environment ensures that new dangers and challenges could appear at any moment.
Some of this can be alleviated if your main character has a strong goal and remains active. Mad Max takes place in one location, but Max had a clear goal. Get himself enough fuel so he could be on his way. Transference has a goal as well – Hailey wants to rebuild her son. But there’s a slight problem with that. Her son is alive and lucid from the get-go. He just doesn’t have a body yet.
The reason this is an issue is because it isn’t clear what’s gained from Hailey completing her goal. If she isn’t able to build a full body for Jacob to inhabit, then what? She can still talk to him. He’s still “alive.” This goes back to the age-old screenwriting dilemma of stakes. What are the stakes of your character not achieving her goal? They don’t seem to be much in Transference, as far as I can tell.
With that said, I liked the mystery behind Hailey’s past. What is Hailey running from? Who’s chasing her and why? Seeing Willis come into town with Hailey in his sights infused Transference with some much-needed energy. This is the “looming” I referred to earlier. Whenever you have these stuck-in-one-place plots, “looming danger” is your greatest ally.
My other main problem with Transference is that the mythology, while cool, wasn’t as clear as it could’ve been. I wasn’t clear on why children were being turned into robots. Was having a child illegal to the point where the government would execute it? Was placing them inside a robotic body the only way to save them? Then there’s this curious rule that adults can’t transfer into robotic bodies. Only kids can. Cause their minds are still developing or something. But Willis had been transferred hadn’t he? And he was an adult. We also eventually find out that Jacob is now 20. Isn’t that an adult? So how is Hailey transferring him?
When you write a science-fiction (or fantasy) story with an elaborate mythology, the story relevant parts of that mythology must be explained clearly to the reader. Too many writers make the mistake of assuming the reader will just “get it.” But you have to remember that we haven’t spent the 50-some hours with you putting your mythology together. All we have to go on is the environment and the allusions to the rules you tell us.
The good news is that that isn’t a huge fix. It seems like Andy knows his mythology. He just hasn’t made it clear enough to us.
I’m more worried about the static location and the vague stakes. This script will live or die on the emotional impact of its mother-son relationship. To that end, we need to raise the stakes there somehow. Maybe you build something into the story where Jacob’s current hard drive is dying. Hailey needs to transfer his consciousness soon or lose him forever. That can be the last stage of the body building. And it’s a super fragile process. One mistake during the transfer and Jacob could be lost forever. This provides a ticking time bomb AND stakes.
I’d also recommend bringing Willis in a teensy bit earlier. Right now he hits us at the midpoint. I don’t think enough is going on in the first half of the script to keep us invested until that point. By introducing the looming threat of Willis earlier, we achieve more intrigue from the reader which should get us to that killer Willis bar scene (no pun intended!).
This script needs work but it’s pretty good! Definitely worthy of winning last week’s showdown.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Remember that time in reading is relative. It goes by slower if the reader is bored and faster if the reader is engaged. A great 130 page script will read exponentially faster than a shitty 90 page script. The good news is, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to manipulate time. One of those is a ticking time bomb. If you imply that time is running out, it creates the illusion during the read that time is moving faster. So if you have two scripts, both 100 pages, one with a ticking time bomb and one without, guess which one reads faster? If Hailey is in need of a part – the “brain” she must transfer Jacob into – and she only has a certain amount of time to find it or Jacob’s current “brain” will die out? You’re manipulating time. I’m not saying that this choice is the best for the story. Only that it and other decisions to manipulate time should be considered. If you’re not manipulating time on some level, your script is going to read like a textbook on the history of Siberia.
One of the joys of reading so many scripts is seeing how they end up on the big screen. There is no exact science to this stuff. A script you were sure was a slam dunk ends up DOA. Or a script you thought was awful beyond belief goes on to win an Oscar. But as the creator of a site all about screenwriting, you’d think I’d have a better track-record than most. So I thought it’d be fun to look back over the years and check out the scripts I misevaluated. These scripts went on to either become box office or critical hits, or box office or critical bombs. Oh Elizabeth, how in the world could I have gotten it so wrong?!
La La Land – La La Land had a box office ceiling of, maybe, 30 million dollars. And that’s on the optimistic side. The budget for this movie was tiny. And while musicals had done okay in recent years, all of them had extravagant production budgets. To do a musical at this price point? Quite frankly, it had never been attempted before. I found La La Land’s script to be the embodiment of cliche. The characters were painfully obvious (we want to be stars! but edgy stars like 1950s Hollywood icons! Haven’t seen that before.) And the script, which featured Los Angeles as its backdrop, seemed to be written by someone who’d spent a weekend there once when he was 12. I’d seen more knowledge of the city in a 1990s Hollywood Best Western brochure. However, in retrospect, these “problems” were exactly what helped the movie connect with people. The characters were simple and easy to identify with. And the obvious Hollywood locations were exactly what people who’d never been to Los Angeles wanted to see. To them, those were the places they’d romanticized with since they were children. Nobody cares about that cool “only in the know” taco-slash-pie stand in Los Feliz that’s open from 2-4am on Tuesdays. Now to my credit, nobody else thought this would be a hit either. Since its release, agents all over town were fired by actors pissed off that they weren’t made aware of the project.
Allied – When I first read Allied, I gave up on it 30 pages in. It went on and on and on and NOTHING HAPPENED. However, when I went back to it a second time, I realized that that was part of the plan, and that I’d read up to a few pages shy of the big twist that would dictate the rest of the script. After going back and reading the whole thing, I thought I’d just read the next Casablanca – a complicated love story set against the backdrop of the biggest war in history. However, audiences didn’t see it that way. The friends of mine who saw the film extended a “Eh, it was okay,” and that was it. In the end I think they cast the film wrong. I don’t think Pitt had the acting chops to handle the male role. And the casting of the female role was uninspired. But maybe I should’ve paid more attention to my initial reaction. What movie takes 45 minutes to get gong? Audiences don’t have the patience for that these days. And I think all that waiting put them in a malaise that they never quite recovered from.
The Founder – A movie about the founder of McDonald’s? How boring does that sound? That was my first reaction when I heard about this project. But I fell in love with the script, whose subject was fascinating. You had an aging failed salesman, your perfect underdog, but also someone who was hard to like. He was a capitalist to the extreme, eager to destroy the very people who helped him become rich. All this amidst the perfect symbol of irony – those golden arches that we’ve come to associate with the American Dream, built on the back of a slimeball, a snake-oil salesman who put himself over everyone else. And yet no one went to see it. It didn’t even get awards attention. Sometimes when you fall in love with a script, you forget about what you were feeling when you first opened it. “A movie about the founder of McDonald’s? How boring does that sound?” And I think that’s why this movie tanked. Was there really some clamoring to know about the guy who invented McDonald’s? No, the box office receipts proved. There wasn’t.
Manchester By The Sea – Oh boy. I need to take a deep breath for this one. I haaaaaaated this script. I think Manchester by the Sea is the embodiment of screenwriting fraud, a glacial lumbering monotonous awards seeker that manipulates people into supporting it less they look like they don’t “get” important subject matter. However, the script would go on to win the screenwriting Oscar for best original screenplay. One of the things I constantly have to remind myself is that I’m not the speaker of the people. Just because I think something is boring doesn’t mean others do as well. I love movies where the story is being pushed forward in every scene (it’s one of the first things they teach you in screenwriting!). But some people don’t need that. They want their movies to reflect real life where the developments come slowly and deliberately. When you don’t have those conventions pulling and twisting at your story, a movie can come pretty close to mirroring real life. And I think that’s what happened here. People saw this and felt like it was really happening. And that was powerful to them.
Draft Day – This script finished number 1 on the Black List, which is a huge deal when you think about it. The Black List loves its quirky and its timely. It doesn’t usually get behind spec-y sports subject matter. It could be argued that Draft Day fits perfectly into the Scriptshadow paradigm. It was designed around a single important day that would make or break an organization (GSU TO THE MOON!). It also had some interesting character development going on, with this father who had a broken relationship with his daughter, both of whom had to work within the same organization. The script had this underdog component to it, and new revelations about this draft pick popping up every 10 pages. It was the antithesis to Manchester by the Sea. There was always something happening. Then I watched the movie and it seemed like every thing I loved about the script had disappeared. The script was one of the fastest I read all year. The movie was slow as molasses. The main character in the script was full of energy. Kevin Costner looked tired and agitated. Everything on the page felt important. The movie felt cheesy. I think this subject matter was too quirky for general audiences. And maybe a football team’s draft just wasn’t as good of a plot source as I thought it was.
American Sniper – Of all the scripts on this list, American Sniper is the one that still keeps me up at night. I thought this script S-U-C-K-E-D. I thought the main character was B-O-R-I-N-G (what was Chris Kyle’s inner conflict exactly?). I wasn’t sure what point the story was trying to make (War is sorta bad?). I thought it was directionless. We’re going off to war, we’re coming back home, then off to war again, then back home again, then off to war again. There was no major goal (with Saving Private Ryan, we were going to get Private Ryan!). And if we’re being completely honest, here, would anyone have seen this movie if Chris Kyle hadn’t died shortly after his biography was written? This is one of my weaknesses as a script evaluator. I am looking for a great story. When I finished Allied, I loved the chances the writer took by waiting so long for his big reveal. And I gave him big points for that, since most screenwriters would’ve played it safe. But most of the time, good movies come down to connecting with the character. And the reason so many people went to see this movie is because Chris Kyle was a hero to them. He killed a lot of bad guys. They don’t need plot points. They don’t need some defining character evaluation. This dude helped protect their country. And they held him in high esteem for that. That’s a lesson in conceptualizing I need to learn.
Collateral Beauty – I’m still mad that I gave this script high marks. In retrospect, its problems were so glaring that I must have been on drugs to ignore them. The notion of “buy-in” has come center stage since the recent release of the batty Book of Henry. When you ask your reader to buy into implausibility after implausibility, there eventually comes a breaking point. I think what I hung onto about Collateral Beauty is that it was one of the last huge spec-y sales in Hollywood. It represented the notion that you could still write something with a fun gimmicky premise, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, and someone would buy it. We don’t have that anymore. Or, at least, we’re on hiatus from it. But even if you like a concept or the idea of a script, it still has to execute. And Collateral Beauty required we make so many leaps of logic that there wasn’t a lick of truth left by the time the closing credits rolled around.
Spotlight - My frustration with Spotlight comes from this being the most fertile subject matter to build a story around in decades, yet the writer choosing to explore it through the most sterile lens available. The characters were empty vessels with zero development. The victims and abusers were barely explored. It was all about the investigation. About the “gotcha.” And I don’t think that’s the right way to explore something like mass child abuse. To be honest, I still struggle to understand why this movie was celebrated by critics (it won a screenwriting Oscar). But if I were to guess, I’d say that hypocrisy had a lot to do with it. Hypocrisy is such a powerful storytelling tool, that when it’s front and center in your story, it can cover up a lot of lackluster writing. What bigger hypocrisy if there than the institution we’re supposed to trust more than anything abusing us and covering it up? That storyline is fascinating to people. And to see the church go down, to get that “gotcha,” was enough for most.
Birdman – Of all the scripts on this list, this is the one I’m the most surprised I didn’t like. It’s got a fun little screenwriting gimmick at its core (contrary to popular belief, I like a good gimmicky setup), with this one continuous day in the prep of a play thing. It’s got a lot of weirdness, a lot of unpredictability. It’s got strange characters. However, even after I saw the film, which was better than the script, I agreed with my original assessment. I think my ultimate problem was that it was trying too hard. It wanted so badly to be considered quirky and different that it ceased being organic. One of the screenwriting skills I hold in high regard is the ability to make one’s writing invisible – to make us forget that we’re watching/reading something. Birdman was the opposite of that. You could feel the writing on every page. However, the movie looked and felt unlike anything else that had been made in years, and that goes a long way. It’s hard to make something that feels truly original. And I definitely give Birdman props for that.
Untitled Chef Project (Burnt) – You guys may have forgotten about this script. It was once in my top 5! And I loved it. The story itself was fairly vanilla. But the reason it rocked was because of its kickass unpredictable unhinged protagonist. Every scene was an adventure because you never knew what this guy was going to do next. So why did the movie (which eventually went on to star Bradley Cooper) fail so miserably? I think Burnt fell into two classic Hollywood holes. For one, it came out too late. It was written during the Chef craze on television but wasn’t made until 7 years later. So everything that was fresh and new about the script felt dated and cliched by the time it hit theaters. Also, it was a tweener. It wasn’t sure if it was a drama or a romantic comedy. And you could feel that when you watched the trailer or looked at the poster. You couldn’t identify the genre. Also, maybe, just maybe, the character wasn’t as edgy as I thought he was. And if that’s how people felt, the movie had nothing left to offer.
There you go guys. All my failings on blast. What scripts were you dead wrong about?
Premise: Told out of order in three separate time segments, a family of brothers clash with a pair of local drug dealers, the aftermath of which will change their lives forever.
About: This script sold a few years ago for almost a million bucks. Ingelsby was one of the big spec sale machines at the time, routinely selling scripts since DiCaprio fell in love with his first screenplay, The Low Dweller, which eventually was rewritten by director Scott Cooper, and became the film, “Out of the Furnace,” starring Christian Bale. Ingelsby’s sold 5-6 other scripts besides these two.
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Details: 132 pages
What in the hell is happening in the world??
Hollywood’s golden child directors, Lord and Miller, were abruptly fired from the Han Solo project Monday a full 5 months into production. Everyone involved is spinning this like it’s not a big deal, but how could it be anything BUT a big deal? Directors get fired from major movies during production once every 10 years.
And remember what happened on Rogue One. After watching Gareth Edwards’ first cut, they told him to take a seat and let Dan Gilroy direct the rest of the film. BUT THEY NEVER FIRED EDWARDS. The fact that they were so mad with what they’ve seen on Solo that they’d fire Lord and Miller is a huge statement in regards to the project (and the feisty Star Wars team in general).
Interestingly enough, they’re saying the problem is screenwriting-related – that Lord and Miller didn’t understand the character of Han Solo. To them, Han Solo was a goofy jokester. But to Lucasfilm, Han Solo is sarcastic and selfish.
The reason this is relevant is because, to the average moviegoer, these adjectives are interchangeable. But screenwriters know that even a slight shift in a character’s essence changes them completely. It is our job to pay attention to these details for these details will affect the entirety of how the character engages with the story.
If this report is accurate, Lucasfilm is spot on. You make Han a jokester, he’s a joke. What makes Han compelling is the fact that he never tries to be funny. His humor is an offshoot of his sarcastic view of the world.
Not to worry, Lord and Miller. I’m sure you’ll end up in a better place. How’s that for a transition? Now let’s get into today’s very non-Star Wars related script. I promise not to fire anyone before I’m finished.
We start in South Philly. Actually, I don’t know which section of Philly we start in. I just think “South Philly” sounds cooler than “Philly.” So we start in South Philly. That’s where we meet the Borzell brothers.
There’s Chris, the broad-shouldered blue-collar carpenter. There’s Barry, the wimpy professor who just married a woman with four children. There’s Mike the doorman who doubles as a ladies man (according to him), and there’s Justin, the recovering drug addict.
The brothers are ditching South Philly for the weekend for a much-needed family gathering in the Poconos. While drinking at a local Poconos bar, they encounter drug dealer Daryl Wilkins and his squirrly sidekick, Kurt Sprouse. The six of them get in a fight, and the brothers are able to outnumber them for the win.
Later on, after fishing, Sprouse stumbles up to the brothers out of nowhere, bleeding to death. The group realizes that Sprouse is being chased by bigger nastier drug dealers, and during the chaos, Mike sees Sprouse’s partner hide 1 million dollars worth of cocaine in the forest before making a run for it.
Cut back to 3 weeks ago for Section 2 of the script, where we get to know a little more about the brothers. We see Barry get married to the woman with four kids whose teenaged daughter hates him, despite the fact that Barry is now paying for this entire families’ survival. We find out Justin is really struggling to distance himself from his addict lifestyle. And we also find out how Wilkins and Sprouse got involved in the biggest drug deal of their lives.
We finally flash forward to the final section, which occurs a couple of weeks after our first section. After getting fired from his doorman job, Mike can’t stop thinking about those hidden drugs, and proposes to the family that they try and sell them. The brothers are reluctant at first, but as we’ve established, all of their lives could be easier with a nice bump of cash. So they go get the drugs and set up a deal. We sense that the brothers are tempting fate, however, and prepare for something very untoward to go down.
Ingelsby’s strengths are detail, dialogue, character and authenticity. His scripts read almost like novels, adding a level of depth you’re not used to when you sit down to read a script. But that depth comes at a cost. The burn is slow. And if you’re someone who needs to check his Instagram every 2 minutes, you’re not going to make it through an Ingelsby screenplay.
Now, not all slow burns are created equal. The good ones manage to build in a way where you forget the deliberate pace. The most effective way to achieve this is by ASKING A QUESTION. That question should be as big as you can make it and affect your key characters as much as possible. If you can achieve this, we’ll patiently endure your slow burn.
Why? Because we want to know the answer to the question. A good example of this is American Beauty. Lester Burnham tells us, at the beginning of the film, that in one year, he will be dead. But we don’t know how he dies. That’s the question we want answered.
My issue with A Better Place is that it waited until page 100 to ask the question – that being, “What’s going to happen to these brothers when they try to sell these drugs?” To Ingelsby’s credit, once that question was asked, I was all in. I had a sense that not all of these brothers were going to make it and I wanted to find out which ones bit it and which survived.
But to make me wait 100 pages before I even knew that’s where the story was going seemed excessive. I have a feeling that that’s why Ingelsby used his funky time structure here. The structure was basically unnecessary. But it helped break things up in a way that distracted from the fact that it was taking so long to get to the point.
Then again, Ingelsby may argue that those 100 pages of character burn were the very reason I cared so much when the characters finally did enter that drug deal. But I believe that audiences are savvy these days. They pick up things faster. And you could’ve made us care about this family within a much shorter timeframe.
Also, by waiting so long, Ingelsby missed some opportunities. Take Justin, for example, the drug addict brother. Because the drug deal is squeezed into the final 30 pages, we only get one scene where Justin and the drugs are alone. Had we started building up an impending deal earlier, Justin could’ve been in charge of those drugs for days, weeks even. An addict who’s finally gotten sober with 30 kilos of cocaine in his kitchen at all times? That’s a compelling situation.
The way I see it, you want to make the slow burn work for you, not against you. So if you’re going to take your time, you want to start multiple suspenseful plot threads as early as possible and have them linger in the background while you explore your characters. A Better Place was more like, “I’m going to spend 100 pages telling you about all these people and then we’ll get to the fun.”
With that said, if you miss those big sprawling 70s movies like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, A Better Place is clearly inspired by those films. The majority of the second section even gives us one of those giant 70s cinema wedding sequences. But your enjoyment of A Better Place will probably coincide with your patience level. The buildup was longer than I would’ve liked, but the ending does kick ass. And, for that reason, I think it’s worth checking out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Slow burns don’t use goals so much as they ask questions. So if you’ve got a slow-burn screenplay, take advantage of this device. And don’t just ask one question. It’s probably not enough to keep us invested for 110 pages. Ask numerous questions. Then sneak in all that slowly developing character stuff in between the answers.
Wait a minute. You’re telling me that the creator of Breaking Bad had Max Landis’s cop-monster idea 10 years before Max Landis???
Genre: TV Pilot – Half-Hour Drama? (didn’t know they made half-hour dramas)
Premise: In a near-future Los Angeles, LAPD is dealing with a new epidemic — people are mutating into monsters, and wreaking havoc all across the city.
About: This 2006 pilot hails from Breaking Bad creator, Vince Gilligan, and his fellow former X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz. However, because this was the pre-Breaking Bad days, the pilot never gained traction. I believe they shot it but it never made it to air. Let’s find out why.
Writers: Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz
Details: 22 pages (edit: full 1 hour pilot, pages cut out)
Hey guys. I’ve just been informed that this draft I read was missing half its pages. So I’m going to take my original analysis down. However, I’m leaving up the What I Learned section, as I still think it’s helpful.
What I learned: I want to challenge you today. Open your current script and randomly go to a scene. Read that scene. Ask yourself, “Is this the best I can do with this scene?” It doesn’t matter what your answer is. Cause you’re going to try to write something better. Can you add more conflict somewhere? More suspense? Can you throw an unexpected twist into the middle of the scene? Can you increase the stakes? Can you tell the scene from a different, unexpected, point of view? Can you use dramatic irony, cluing in the audience, but not the characters, that something bad is about to happen? Can you change the location to the last place we’d expect? Can you bring in a new character? Can you be brave and throw a curveball into the scene that you didn’t originally plan for? If you manage to write something better, feel free to post how you improved your scene. It might end up helping someone else with their script.
Genre: Biopic/True Story
Premise: The story of a, then, upstart Donald Trump’s first real estate project, the renovation of the Commodore Hotel.
About: This script made the low end of last year’s Black List. It’s Tom Cartier’s breakthrough script. He doesn’t have any listed work before it.
Writer: Tom Cartier
Details: 111 pages
It’s genius in a way.
Write a script about the most talked about man in the world. At the very least, people are going to read your screenplay. They may not like it. But they’ll read it.
And I like the approach Cartier took here. You could’ve chosen the obvious route and made this another butt-of-the-joke Trump piece. But then you’d be doing exactly what everyone else was doing. One of the easiest ways to make your story stand out is to go against expectation. And that’s what Cartier did. “Builder” is the first thing I’ve read in ages that takes Trump seriously.
However, all that does is assures me this is going to be different. It doesn’t assure me that it’s going to be good. So let’s find out if Builder was any good.
We join Donald Trump in 1977 when he was 25 years old. Donald’s father, Fred Sr., used to be a real estate developer but got blacklisted for some shady accounting practices. This means that Donald, who is already obsessed with real estate, is fighting an uphill from the second he hits the pavement.
Donald has two brothers, one younger (Robert) and one older (Freddy). It’s Freddy we focus on, though. Eight years Donald’s senior, Freddy is a classic underachiever who can’t live up to his father’s wildly lofty expectations. As such, he’s taken his struggles to the bottle.
Donald wants to make a splash in real estate as quickly as possible so he targets a crumbling hotel in Midtown called the Commodore as his first renovation project. Donald hires political kingmaker Janice Brightly to advise him, and she basically tells him that there’s no way they’re going to entrust a hundred million dollar renovation to a 25 year old. Yeah, Donald says, but I’m Donald Trump.
The story then follows Donald as he works all the major people in the way of his project. There’s his evil nemesis and current real estate king, Richard Ravitch. There’s Michael DePhillips, who he’ll use to plant positive stories in the press. And there’s Jay Pritzker, whose Hyatt Hotel affiliation Trump needs to add legitimacy to the project.
And then there’s Trump’s ace in the hole – his revolutionary new financing idea. He’s going to buy the building, sell it back to the city, and rent it from them on a hundred year lease, allowing him to avoid paying any taxes. He’s effectively getting the building for free. But when Trump’s rival, Ravitch, finds this out, he vows to do everything in his power to stop Trump from getting the Commodore. There’s only one problem. Ravitch has never gone up against someone as ruthless as Donald Trump.
I really wanted to like this. I was hoping it was going to give me some new insight into Trump. To me, that’s the only reason to write about someone, is to reveal things about them that we don’t already know. I particularly saw the brother relationship as an opportunity to see the softer side of Trump. Unfortunately, that relationship is shoddily handled, and the prevailing theme at the end of the script is one I didn’t need to spend 2 hours of my life to find out, since I already knew it – Trump is ruthless.
The plotting here is very “And then this happened.” This is the “inevitability” plot approach that I warn against because it’s too predictable. When you’re predictable, your reader gets ahead of you. And if they get too far ahead of you, they get impatient. They’re now waiting for YOU to catch up when you’re the one who should be waiting for THEM to catch up.
For example, we’re told early on the 5 people Trump will have to win over to get the Commodore. We then go through the painstaking process of Trump meeting each of those people over the next 20 pages. So I’m sitting there checking my watch going, “Okay, which person is he on? How many more of these guys do we have to get through until we’re on to the next section?” This kind of writing almost always leads to boredom.
So how do you prevent it? The solution can be found back in my “In and Out” article. We needed a big “IN” plot moment. Something to be thrown at our protagonist that, in turn, threw the story for a loop, setting our main character on a different path. But we never got it.
And it’s unfortunate we couldn’t get more into this Trump brother relationship because it had a lot of potential. The mistake that was made was a common screenwriting error. The relationship was all TELL and no SHOW. It was the brother telling anyone who would listen, “I’m trying hard but it’s tough to be successful in real estate,” and Trump telling associates, “My brother has so much potential. But my dad is so hard on him!”
That’s not how you explore a relationship. You explore a relationship through action. For example, you establish that Freddy has a drinking problem. Then you establish that Trump is stretched thin with all his Commodore meetings and needs help. So he decides to entrust his brother to go one of these meetings (an important one, of course). And the prevailing sentiment is, “I’m taking a chance on you. Don’t fuck this up.” And, of course, Freddy gets drunk before the meeting and he blows the meeting, setting Trump back to square one.
Now, you have an argument between the brothers about how Freddy screwed up the meeting, with the subtext being, “Your whole life is a fuckup. You’re a failure. And this proves it.” You’re using plot points to create actionable scenes, as opposed to characters saying on-the-nose lines like, “There’s so much pressure to live up to my dad.”
The final nail in the coffin was that the script didn’t do a good job explaining, in laymen’s terms, how Trump’s innovative financing worked. To my knowledge, this is what made Trump’s career, is his innovation in the way he put deals together. So it’s really important that we understand what Trump’s doing. But the script’s explanation of this process is buried under strange terms (what’s an arrearment?) and a complicated rule-pyramid that’s almost unintelligible.
And before you say, “Well, it’s not easy to explain complicated real estate financing to an average person,” I’d argue that The Big Short figured out a way to do it. Look, guys. You don’t get excuses as screenwriters. You don’t get to say, “Well, I didn’t do that because it was too hard.” Your job is to make it work. That’s why people will pay you millions of dollars to write. Because you’re the guy who figures it out. Nobody wants to hear excuses.
But the biggest thing this script needed was the emotional core – that relationship between Trump and Freddy. Because people don’t see Donald Trump as a human being. And if you could’ve explored that relationship, you would’ve been able to move past that issue.
I’m a little terrified about what the comments are going to look like so let’s try to keep the conversation on topic and if you do bring up politics in relation to the script, do so respectfully. If I see attacking, bullying, or name-calling, it’s likely those comments will be deleted, no matter how many “But they started it” e-mails I get.
And with that, discuss!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There are things in every script that you really want to get across. Many times they’re the reason you wanted to write the script in the first place. The problem with these things is that they will become primary candidates to be used as on-the-nose dialogue. And it’s not even your fault. You can’t help it. You HAVE to let the reader know that THIS IS WHY YOU FUCKING WROTE THIS SCRIPT! So it feels so damn good to write those lines. But guess what? Those lines are always the worst lines in your script. Because they’re so damn on-the-nose! You have to resist writing them and, instead, look for actionable ways (show don’t tell) to include them instead. So here, one of the key things Cartier is exploring is the fact that Freddy is 8 whole years older than Donald and a fraction of the businessman Donald is. We get a line in the script where Freddy actually says, “I’m 8 years older than you.” You don’t want to write this. You want to find ways to imply it instead. Is it easy? No. But writing isn’t easy. So I’ll kick it down to you guys. How would you SHOW and not TELL that Freddy is 8 years older than Donald and a fraction of the businessman?