5 scripts. You vote for the winner! Champion gets a review next Friday!
Okay guys, you’re now armed with a better understanding of what makes a good movie idea. First and foremost, read as many of this weekend’s scripts as you can and vote for your favorite in the comments section. However, I also want you to evaluate today’s loglines with your newfound knowledge and give the writers constructive criticism. If you don’t like an idea or a logline, tell the writer why. Help them get better. And every time you evaluate someone’s logline, you get a little better at writing them yourself. So help away!
If you’d like to submit your own script to compete on Amateur Offerings, send a PDF of your script to email@example.com with the title, genre, logline, and why you think your script should get a shot. We’re all looking for that next great screenplay so don’t be shy!
Title: The Rescue
Genre: Action Comedy
Logline: After an American is wrongfully accused of murder in a South American country with no diplomatic relations with the US, his brother and two childhood best friends reunite to undergo a rescue mission, for which they are totally unequipped for, before an American hating dictator can put their friend to death.
Why You Should Read: I’ve been a daily reader of your website for six years. LA resident for 10. I wrote three features this past year, this being my favorite. The idea is compelling to me because it has the strongest “what would you do?” element. What if my brother was being put to death in a foreign country, for something I was pretty sure he was innocent of, and the US government said they weren’t doing anything? How could I just let it happen? Yes, I’m just a bartender, but somehow, someway, I’d try to sneak into that country and get him out! It’s THE HANGOVER meets MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.
Title: The Co-ed Butcher
Genre: Thriller/True crime
Logline: Based on the true story of Edmund Kemper. After the death of his abusive mother, a repentant serial-killer struggles between surrendering to the authorities and continuing his murderous spree.
Why You Should Read: As a horror fan, I can’t stand how serial killers are portrayed in media nowadays. And on top of that, I can’t think of a good script where the protagonist is the serial killer. I’ve tried to change that. Think of this as Zodiac meets Crime and Punishment.
Genre: Science Fiction
Logline: 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.
Title: Fate Magnetic
Logline: When Greek god Apollo, living anonymously in contemporary London, is murdered, his sister Artemis must reunite her estranged family to find his killer.
Why You Should Read: This is the mash up of Greek gods living in modern day London, martial arts fight scenes and murder-mystery that you didn’t know you wanted. With a female protagonist, franchise potential and a fast read at just 95 pages this script doesn’t hang about. A producer, after reading this, once told me that this script will never sell because there are no female stars to headline a project like this and audiences don’t want films like these starring women. Well, let’s see if he’s right.
Title: The Answer
Genre: Supernatural Drama
Logline: An already fractured family struggles to find normalcy after the exorcism of the youngest child goes horribly wrong leaving the mother dead.
Why you should read: I’ve always been fascinated with exorcisms especially what happens after the exorcism is over. How do families carry on after that? What happens if somebody dies during the exorcism? Who do you blame? The exorcist? The possessed person? The demon??? These are the questions that are posed in THE ANSWER and hopefully we will get the answers.
So here’s a question for you.
Is the new Star Wars trilogy doomed?
That question is being asked by a lot of people today as Colin Trevorrow’s new film, “Book of Henry,” hits theaters, and is being massacred by every critic with access to wifi (the film is currently at 24% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Trevorrow hit a streak of luck like none other when he was awarded a Jurassic Park sequel after the debut of his first film, “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Despite the film barely grossing 4 million dollars, the people over at Universal felt like Trevorrow was a talent with mega-potential, and hired him to direct Jurassic World.
That movie shocked the industry, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Trevorrow parlayed that into getting the grandest gig of them all, Star Wars Episode 9.
Trevorrow admits to all of this being a bit fast, and wanted to get at least one more movie under his belt before, what will be, the movie that defines his career.
Which leads us to the quirky nature in which Hollywood constructs its projects, a system, it can be argued, built around a single question: “Who’s hot right now?”
Which begs another question. Was Colin Trevorrow right for Episode 9? Or was he simply hot at the right moment? Was Safety Not Guaranteed really that much better than the 10 other indies that broke out in 2012? How much of Jurassic World’s success can be attributed to Trevorrow and how much was just, “People really wanted to see dinosaurs that summer?” And how confident can anyone be in someone who read Book of Henry and thought, “This is perfect?”
Ironically, this takes us right back to yesterday and the question of, “What’s a good idea?” Cause Book of Henry wasn’t a good idea at all (the biggest tip it violated was number 3, Clarity – “A good idea is one where all the elements come together clearly and harmoniously. The idea is simple to understand and you’re able to imagine the movie immediately.”). Book of Henry was three ideas. Maybe four. Possibly five.
Had Colin just read my review, he could’ve addressed this! But therein lies the singular truth about making films. Ultimately, it’s up to one person on whether they believe an idea is good or not, even if everyone else tells him it isn’t. Let me put it this way: If movies couldn’t be made until everyone agreed that the idea was good, no movie would ever get made. At a certain point, someone has to come forward and say, “I believe in this.”
But, clearly, Book of Henry should not have been believed in. And that leads us back to the question of, “Is Star Wars screwed?” Did we give Trevorrow something he is in no way, shape, or form, ready to tackle?
My answer to that question is two-fold. We did. However, Star Wars is not screwed. Unlike on Book of Henry, where Trevorrow had total creative control, he will not have anything approaching that control on Star Wars. They’re going to tell him if the script sucks and they’re going to make him change things that need changing. The people at Disney are some of the best in the world at story. And you better believe that after this weekend, they’ll all be reading the Episode 9 script again and looking to give notes.
My original Book of Henry script review was a hastily written mess (I was embarrassed while reading it). So here’s the same review, but cleaned up. Keep in mind that the review was written a couple of years ago.
Premise: (from IMDB): A single mother discovers a scheme in her son’s book to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather and sets out to execute the plan at any cost.
About: As recently as last month, this was listed as Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow’s next movie. He’s openly talked about how the script blew him away. I had some of my trusted readers check it out and the score is 3-2 in favor of “awesome.” The problem is, the two who didn’t like it REALLY didn’t like it. This seems to be one of those scripts that divide people. The screenplay is an original story by novelist Gregg Hurwitz, who has 14 novels to his name.
Writer: Gregg Hurwitz
Details: 118 pages
It can’t be an easy transition, going from unknown commodity to the hottest director in Hollywood in a span of two years, although I can imagine worse issues to have.
Trevorrow has repeatedly stated he was resistant to taking the Jurassic World job because he didn’t think he was ready. He had only directed one film. He still needed to perfect his craft. Put plainly, he needed practice.
So even as hype for Jurassic World built, he stated his excitement to get back to small movies, particularly this one, which would be his follow-up to Dino Destruction. The script has been around for awhile, but as far as I know hasn’t been on anyone’s radar. So could this really be that rare diamond in the rough that everyone in the industry missed? Or might it be a piece of coal that has finally found someone to fool?
“The Book of Henry” follows Susan, a single mother to her two sons: her prodigy 12 year-old boy, Henry, and Henry’s younger brother, Peter.
The family doesn’t have much but they get along extremely well, a lot of that due to the precocious Henry playing the role of surrogate father. Henry is the one who keeps this clan clicking.
Henry spends his free time doting over his next-door neighbor, Christina, who happens to be the daughter of the Police Chief, Neil. When Henry finds out that Neil is molesting Christina, he starts concocting a plan to murder Neil.
However, Henry’s plan goes awry when he learns he has a brain tumor. And not just any brain tumor – a really fast-acting brain tumor. Within a couple of weeks, Henry is dead. Talk about a plot twist. Luckily, Henry wills his murder book to his younger brother Peter, and his dying wish is for him and mom to take up where he left off.
So the final third of the movie is Susan and Peter putting together a plan to execute Police Chief Neil, then gaming the system so they can adopt Christina and make her a part of their family. Yes, this plan has multiple layers! But Susan and Peter aren’t geniuses like Henry, leaving the audience to wonder if they’re capable of pulling this super-plan off.
As much as I’d like to, I can’t get behind this screenplay. With that said, as a screenwriting discussion piece? This script is the Ark of the Covenant.
There is so much going on here, I don’t know where to start.
Our main character is killed off midway through the story!
These guys went full Psycho on us!
Except the wimps in Psycho only killed off an adult. Book of Henry kills off a child.
Then there’s the script’s structure, which is less one continuous flowing story than a series of story reboots. The first movie is about a single mom raising a child genius, a la Bobby Fischer. The second movie is a family grieving the death of their child, some “Ordinary People,” if you must. And the last movie is a mother and son – I can’t believe I’m writing this – planning to murder their neighbor. So it turns into “In the Bedroom.”
The tone of the script often plays opposite the subject matter. So in the aforementioned “In The Bedroom,” when the parents decide to kill their son’s killer, the tone’s very dark and intense. Here, you could almost call the tone light-hearted, with mother and son cracking jokes while preparing to murder their prey.
The script is so unlike anything you’ve ever read that you almost have to give credit to the writer for that achievement alone. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get on board. And it’s for one of the oldest reasons in the Book of Screenwriting – suspension of disbelief.
I never believed that this mother and son would team up to kill a man. I just couldn’t. In what world does a mother teach her ten year old son to murder? That’s not reality. That’s movie logic. Try to think of any scenario in the real world where this might happen. You can’t. And once you’re introducing human behavior that’s never been seen before, you’re squarely in movie logic world.
I wasn’t surprised to find out this was written by a novelist either. The two readers who didn’t like “Henry” told me they were bored to tears 30 pages in. Indeed, nothing happens in those first 30 pages. It’s pure character set-up. And while that’s fine for a novel, everything needs to move quickly in a screenplay.
The moment I first got hooked in “Henry” was when I discovered Henry might be planning to murder Neil. That came at around page 35. We could’ve gotten to that point 20 pages sooner.
Once you tell the audience that one of your characters is going to do something horrible, you’ve bought yourself some time. We’re going to want to stick around to see that horrible act occur. But if you take too long to introduce that suspense ticker in the first place, you risk losing the audience before you’ve even gotten to that storyline. And that’s what happened here.
And actually, I thought that’s the direction Book of Henry was going. I thought Henry was going to kill Neil, and the second half of the screenplay would be about the family dealing with the aftermath. Not only would that have been a smoother and easier-to-buy-into story, but a compelling drama to boot. Killing Henry off and passing that plan on to mom and bro? It’s just such a bizarre choice.
This is a not an easy screenplay to judge because I admire Hurwitz for trying something different. But being different doesn’t mean being good. Hurwitz asks so much from the reader that, at a certain point, you throw up your hands and go, “Come on, man. That is too far.”
For that reason, this wasn’t for me. With that said, I give credit to Hurwitz and Trevorrow for taking a dinosaur-sized chance. In this industry, you have to stand by your convictions. If you love something despite its warts and warnings, take a shot at it. It’s resulted in great movies before so it will certainly result in great movies again. Just not this one.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: For the love of all that is holy, when you have heat on you, STRIKE! Because heat is rare. And when it’s gone, it’s hard to get back. Look at the difference between Colin Trevorrow’s and Shane Carruth’s careers. Both of them wrote and directed small sci-fi films that became critical darlings (“Primer” and “Safety Guaranteed”). Both were offered big projects. Trevorrow decided to take one, and he can now direct any freaking movie he wants to. Caruth, on the other hand, became indecisive when he was hot and faded back into obscurity, not to be heard from again for another 10 years, where he directed a quickly forgotten movie about psychic pigs. I have personally witnessed writers allow other people with ulterior motives to slow them down and not capitalize on their heat, only to lose that heat, along with the interest of half the town. Opportunities are rare in Hollywood. When they come, you must take advantage of them.
The biggest mistake screenwriters make in screenwriting is starting with a bad idea. Actually, “bad” isn’t the right word. Another ‘b’ word is more appropriate. “Benign.” There’s nothing to the idea. It’s empty, uninspired, boring. And yet, 90% of the submissions I get continue to be lame and lifeless. What sucks about this is your script is doomed before you’ve even written word. And I’ve watched that play out too many times, with writers rearranging words, scenes, sentences, sequences, characters, loglines, all in the hope that their “idea” will all of a sudden work.
So what is a good idea? Well, there’s some subjectivity involved, of course. But generally speaking, people know when they’ve been pitched a good idea. Good ideas feels inspired, original, and bursting with potential. On the flip side, bad ideas feel cliched, uninspired, and half-baked. That isn’t a lot to go on as those descriptors are fairly nebulous. But don’t worry, cause I’m going to give you ten tips you can use to finally start coming up with good movie ideas. Are you ready? Let’s get started.
1) Try – This may sound like stupid advice. It isn’t. I’d say that half the ideas I’m pitched are bad simply because the writer isn’t trying. You can tell they came up with the idea quickly and haven’t thought it through. An idea has to be battle-tested. It should be pitted against at least ten other ideas you’ve been working through and emerge as the clear winner. Every time you come up with an idea, ask yourself, is this an inspired idea or is it similar to other ideas out there? Movie idea generation is the most competitive arena there is. EVERYBODY thinks they have a great movie idea, which means you’re competing against billions (with a ‘b’) of ideas. If you’re not trying your hardest, I guarantee you your idea’s bad. Here’s an example of a really well thought-out idea.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – After their relationship fails, a couple undergoes a procedure to have the memories of each other erased, only to realize halfway through that they made a mistake. They then must race through every memory in their relationship to avoid losing each other forever.
2) A fresh angle/take – One of the easiest ways for me to identify a seasoned screenwriter over a newbie is a fresh take on an old premise. Newbies are still in that mindset where they’re re-writing the movies they grew up on. Veterans realize that to make an impression, they must find a new way into the movies they grew up on. One of the best examples of this is Memento, which took the old noir investigative thriller and turned it on its head.
Memento – A man with short-term memory loss utilizes a system of tattooing the clues of his wife’s murder on his body to find the man who killed her.
3) Clarity – A good idea is one where all the elements come together clearly and harmoniously. The idea is simple to understand and you’re able to imagine the movie immediately. I read a lot of ideas where the writer is throwing numerous pieces of the puzzle at us, but the pieces don’t fit together. I’ll give you two romantic comedy ideas to explain what I mean, one with a clear and powerful idea, the other with a murky and cluttered one.
Pretty Woman – A buttoned-up businessman in town for the biggest deal of his life hires an unrefined prostitute to pose as his girlfriend for the week, sparking an unexpected romance.
Aloha – An Air Force pilot returns to Hawaii to oversee the launch of a top secret military satellite while attempting to reconnect with his newly engaged ex-girlfriend as well as exploring a romance with the company woman who’s been assigned to keep tabs on him.
4) A complex/interesting main character – “I’m not interested in super hero movies or high concept stuff, Carson. Does that mean I’m screwed?” No. You’re not screwed. But, if you don’t have a highly marketable idea, you better have a compelling complex-as-shit main or key supporting character. That’s because your character will now become your pitch. Therefore, if they don’t sound interesting, that means you’re not giving us a great idea or a great character. What else is left? Are you going to wow us with your deft ability to hide exposition? Nightcrawler is a good example of this.
Nightcrawler – Louis Bloom, an unpleasant sociopathic loner with a gift for salesmanship, revolutionizes the practice of nightcrawling – taping violent accidents and selling them to news shows – by risking death every night to be the best in the field.
5) Irony – Another way for you guys who hate Hollywood movies to come up with a great idea is to utilize irony. The most basic form of movie irony is to make your hero the exact opposite of what’s required of him. So you wouldn’t write a story about an atheist who starts his own atheism support group. You’d write a story about an atheist who takes a job as a Christian preacher to make ends meet. Because irony is such a powerful element in making ideas pop, it’s another easy way to separate seasoned writers from newbies.
The Social Network – An antisocial Harvard freshman with no friends ends up creating the single largest friend network in the history of the world.
6) Strange Attractor – One of you had the perfect reaction to a recent Amateur Offerings idea. The commenter, assessing an idea that sounded like every action movie ever, said that the logline was the equivalent of “beige wallpaper.” And I thought that was perfect. You want to avoid the “beige wallpaper” version of movie ideas. One way to do this is to include a “strange attractor,” which is a unique element that stands out like a red rose in a desert. Even if your idea isn’t perfect, the strange attractor will get a reader’s attention. Say you want to write a survival movie. You can write about a man stuck on a life raft after his boat sinks, which has no strange attractor. Or you can go with something like this…
Life of Pie – When a ship transferring zoo animals to a new country sinks, a young boy is stuck on a lifeboat with a dangerous tiger.
7) Ill-equipped main character – One of the easiest ways to make your idea more interesting is to include a main character who is extremely ill-equipped for the mission at hand. This will make the character an UNDERDOG, which is one of the most salable elements in idea creation. And really, this gets to the heart of what makes any story good, which is that the journey must be difficult. What better way to make the journey difficult than to make the main character as ill-equipped for that journey as possible?
The King’s Speech – The King of England, a rampant stutterer, must overcome his speech impediment to give the most important speech in history, one that inspires the world to stop Adolf Hitler.
8) A Primary Source of Conflict – Remember guys, that a screenplay is broken down into three acts. Act 1 is SETUP. Act 3 is RESOLUTION. That leaves us with one act left. Which act is that? It’s the act of CONFLICT. A movie idea without conflict isn’t a movie idea. It’s the beginning of a movie idea. One of the reasons Hancock was so forgettable was because it only ever figured out the beginning of its idea – a drunk superhero. It needed a strong conflict to turn it into a fully-fleshed out idea.
Murder on the Orient Express – When a murder occurs on an extended lavish train ride, a detective must find the killer amongst 13 suspects before the murderer strikes again. (the conflict is the detective’s investigation – that’s what will take up the second act).
9) Genre-Mixing – This is one of the oldest tricks in coming up with fresh ideas. You simply take one genre and mix it up with another one. Since most writers tend to stay in one genre lane, the Frankensteinien results of genre mixing give way to some interesting ideas. Some of the more common genres that are mixed are horror and sci-fi, comedy and sci-fi, thrillers and horror. But don’t stop there. Get weird if you want. Mix a musical with a western. Mix adventure and film noir. At the very least, you’ll have an idea that stands apart from all that cliche garbage everyone else is coming up with. And here’s a bonus tip: The less the two genres go together, the more unique the idea will be. Mixing the romance and serial killer genres, for example.
Westworld (combines Western and Science-Fiction genre) – A robot malfunction creates havoc at a futuristic amusement park that allows its participants to live in an artificially constructed Old West.
10) Relatively High Stakes – There’s a reason I used the word “relatively” here. That’s because not every movie is about saving the universe, nor should it be. However, the importance of your hero’s journey must contain consequences relative to that journey. Otherwise your idea sounds unimportant. One of the reasons the movie “Wild” didn’t catch on was because there were no clear stakes. A girl hikes a trail to find herself. What happens if she doesn’t find herself? Err… she’s upset? The relative stakes in that movie are non-existent. The Sweet Hereafter, another character-driven indie film, was dripping in stakes.
The Sweet Hereafter – A teenage girl who survived the most horrific school bus crash in history is the key witness in a class action suit against the state, but isn’t sure she wants to tell the truth about what happened that day.
There you have it, guys! The road map to all your future movie ideas. I encourage you to practice these tips and share the results in the comments section. The readers of this site are good at explaining why loglines or concepts aren’t working. So this is as good of an opportunity as you’re going to get at practicing idea generation and receiving valuable feedback.
If you want to get my personal opinion, I charge $25 for 200 words of feedback on loglines. I also charge $75 for a pack of 5 loglines. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: “LOGLINE” to sign up. You can also hire me to consult on feature screenplays and pilots. I’ll give you $50 off with the subject header: “CONSULTATION 50.” Hope to hear from you soon!
Premise: (from Black List) A mistreated elderly Inuit (Eskimo) woman is forced out of her village to survive alone on the savage arctic tundra.
About: This script finished with 9 votes on the 2015 Black List. This is a huge accomplishment when you consider the writer didn’t even have an agent. The Black List is dominated almost exclusively by writers repped at WME, CAA, and UTA because those scripts get sent out the most. Any script not from one of those companies has had maybe a fifth of the exposure. So for those scripts to get enough votes to make the vaunted list is an enormous accomplishment.
Writer: Michael Lee Barlin
Details: 97 pages
So I picked today’s script for a specific reason.
I was reading through loglines for potential scripts to review and I came across this one and I thought: That has to be the single most boring-sounding idea for a movie I’ve ever read. Therefore, if the writer can make THIS script good, that’s going to make me reevaluate how every writer should approach concept creation.
Truth be told, I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing landscape of concepts. It used to be “high concept high concept high concept.” But since all the “high concept” slots have been taken up by franchise films, it’s sorta forced spec writers in the other direction – to come up with a good dramatic idea with some meat to it. The plan, then, is to get on the Black List and get noticed that way.
But man, I don’t know. If THIS idea turns out to be great, it will probably be the most surprised I’ll have ever been reading a script. I don’t see how an idea this benign can be good. But you never know until you read. So let’s read!
Final Journey introduces us to 86 year-old Isha. Isha lives in a tribe of eskimos who aren’t exactly sentimental. That’s because when you get so old you can’t sew blankets, they tell you to walk out into the arctic tundra until you die of cold or starvation.
And I always thought killing baby seals were the eskimos best quality.
So this cold-ass eskimo tribe deems Isha unworthy of hanging around, and have a fake “We loved ya why u were around” ceremony, kicking Isha out of town, not sticking around long enough to see her past the horizon, since, you know, it’s fucking cold out and they need to get back to their igloos to warm up!
Isha is ready for death, even though the people she spent the last 86 years of her life with and who she loved more than anything just told her she was useless and to scram.
However, before nature can take its course, Isha runs into 14 year old Tato. Tato’s a cool little teenager who’s been sent out by his own tribe. Except at least he gets to come back home. IF he kills a polar bear that is. Which will officially make him a man.
At first, Tato’s annoyed by Isha. But when Isha starts stitching his clothes back together and giving him moral support, he starts to like her.
While the two speak different dialects and therefore can’t understand one another, they’re able to draw images to each other in the snow, and this rudimentary form of pictionary allows them to communicate.
When the polar bear finally comes around, Tato goes out to perform his duty. But things don’t go as planned, with Tato nearly getting ripped to shreds. It will be up to Isha to save Tato and get him home. But that job is a double-edged spear. If she gets her new friend home, it will mean completing her own mission, that being dying of starvation like her tribe so lovingly ordered her to do. That is unless Tato’s people find value in Isha in a way her tribe never could.
I’m going to start by saying the first words that came to mind after reading this.
Seriously. If this is what they do or ever did – they are some terrible people. Who the heck came up with this “tradition” anyway, the eskimo version of L. Ron Hubbard?
Getting back to the script, I’ll say this. This is the best execution you could’ve possibly pulled off for a movie about a woman who walks into the arctic tundra to die.
We’ve got a buddy-movie on display. Isha and Tato may not be Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. But they’re still pretty fun to watch. And unpredictable! I bet you didn’t see an 86 year old woman jacking off a 14 year old boy, did you? Yup, well, we get that scene in Final Journey.
We’ve also got a GOAL driving the story – something you might not expect to find in an artsy drama about eskimos. Tato needs to kill the polar bear (goal) before he can come home. And that goal gets us through the rest of the narrative, which covers the growing friendship between Isha and Tato.
And the script is pretty clever as well. At the beginning, we’re informed that even though the characters will be speaking throughout the film, that there will be NO subtitles. So how do you convey what the characters are saying to each other without subtitles?
Well, what Barlin did was he had Isha and Tato speak different dialects. So they couldn’t understand each other. This forced them to draw pictures in the snow to communicate. And because the audience can also see those pictures, THAT’S how we understood what they were saying to each other.
A lesser writer may have made the dialects the same and therefore missed out on this opportunity.
But let’s be honest here. How does a movie like this get made? I mean… it’s different, that’s for sure. So it’s going to look unique. It’s going to take us to a place we’ve never been before. But our leads are an 86 year old woman and a 14 year old boy. Both of these demos are squarely outside the studio friendly 18-34 year old white male.
With that said, this story does hit you on an emotional level. Especially the ending (spoiler), where Isha is welcomed into Tato’s tribe with loving arms, but she chooses to complete her mission anyway, only this time with the support and love of people who care about her instead of those who cast her off like a loaf of moldy bread.
I have to give it to the writer. He went against every rule in the book in writing this, found a way to keep us interested, and made the Black List. Even if the film doesn’t get made, that feat alone is worth a read.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re going to write something really artsy? At the very least, make the situation life-or-death. Because if it’s just characters waltzing around doing shit with no consequences, those are the scripts that are truly the most boring. This script may have been about a grandma eskimo, but the stakes were life and death for both our main characters, and that provided the script with the weight it needed for us to care about the characters’ journey.
Scriptshadow Reader Question of the Day: What is the most unmarketable idea you’ve ever written? And where does that screenplay rank in your slate of finished screenplays?
Premise: (from Black List) Four dysfunctional coworkers get lost in the wilderness during a team-building trip and must work together in order to survive.
About: April Prosser broke onto the scene a couple of years ago with the big spec sale, Plus One, about a newly divorced woman who’s only got one option for a wingwoman, a loud sexually-oversharing wild card. That film will star Cecily Strong from SNL as the wild card and Jessica Chastain as the divorcee. This is Prosser’s follow-up script.
Writer: April Prosser
Details: 112 pages
Today, I want to ask the question: What makes a good comedy?
Because every time I read a comedy where I don’t laugh enough, I find myself asking that question. And since comedy is the hardest genre to get right, I ask that question a lot.
I can tell you what a good comedy isn’t. A good comedy isn’t one long script where the writer looks to insert funny dialogue lines. And I think that’s how most writers approach this genre. They come up with a concept, they get their 3 acts in order, then they make their characters say funny things every once in awhile.
This results in a lot of “unfunny laughs.” We’re laughing. But we’re not really laughing. We’re reacting to a pre-established paradigm that makes us feel like we should laugh, so we do.
And therein lies the challenge. How do we build real laughs? How do we create those moments where audiences are literally holding their stomachs because they’re laughing so hard?
That’s something we’ll get to in a second. But first, let’s hike through the plot of Rugged.
“Rugged” starts out, uniquely enough, with a montage. In it, Kate, a VP of Sales for a tech company, voice overs the evolution of her three-woman team. There’s Blair, the one who routinely heads to the bathroom to sneak a sip of vodka (or two). There’s Anne, the cold bitchy one who doubles as a professional eye-roller. And there’s Cassie, naive and, some may argue, dumb.
Things started out well enough. But over time, this team has mastered the art of getting on each other’s nerves. Anne is furious that Blair always comes in late. Blair is pissed that Cassidy keeps sending her bad leads. And Cassidy… well Cassidy doesn’t realize where she is half the time. Finally, there’s Kate herself, who’s so bad at disciplining her subordinates that you could say she’s the main reason for all their dysfunction.
Things come to a head when the team goes nuclear just as a major client shows up, screaming and yelling at each other while the client looks on. The CEO has had it and tells Kate to go hike a mountain with her team and work out their issues. Oh, and if they don’t get a picture on top of the mountain, they’re all fired.
Things go about as well as you’d think. None of the girls know a lick about camping. So the bitching and moaning begins the second they begin elevating. On the first night, their unsecured tent goes flying away in the wind, forcing them to cozy up with four male hikers, something no one’s complaining about.
But the next day, they get lost. They realize that when they shacked up with the dudes, they moved off their trail. Which means they could be anywhere on this mountain. And since none of their phones have a signal, of course, they’re going to have to figure this out on their own. Dare I say, they’re going to have to become a TEAM to make it out alive. Are these girls rugged enough? Hold on tight to your bear spray to find out.
The answer to how do we write truly hilarious comedy is complicated. For starters, you have to give us characters we like and care about. If we don’t care about what happens to these people, it’s hard to draw laughs at their expense.
Also, you need to set up clearly-defined conflict in each relationship because you’ll be exploiting that conflict throughout the script for laughs. For example, if a man is hated by his girlfriend’s father, you can play with that, making it so every time the man tries to impress the father, it backfires.
That’s the basics.
Once you have those, there are two main components that will generate gut-busting laughter.
The first is set pieces. And you’re only going to find funny set pieces if you have the kind of concept that generates funny set pieces. For example, a concept where a bunch of drunk dudes wake up with no idea where the groom is the day before he gets married is going to yield a lot more funny set pieces than, say, a concept where an accountant gets fired and has to look for a new job.
So follow along here. Good concept = good set pieces = lots of laughter.
So what is a set piece? A set piece is any moment in a script that contains an important objective that has a big impact on your hero’s overall pursuit. Believe it or not, a set piece doesn’t need to be some giant scenario. It can be, and usually is. But read that definition again. Any moment in the script that contains an important objective that has a big impact on your hero’s overall pursuit.
One of the best comedic set pieces in history was the “answering machine” set piece in Jon Favereau’s Swingers. And all that scene had was a guy in a small room with a phone. However, it met the criteria for a set piece. Mikey’s pursuit was getting over his girlfriend by finally finding someone new. He met a great girl earlier that night. He’d been told, whatever you do, don’t call her for two days. But when he gets home, he can’t help himself, so he calls her. He gets her answering machine. He leaves her a message that he enjoyed their time together and can’t wait to see her, but he gets cut off during the message by the beep.
So he calls again. And he again says he can’t wait to meet. But then starts getting insecure, and starts sounding needy, and tries to talk himself out of it, but gets cut off by the beep. So he calls again. And he tries explain away his neediness and not sound desperate while doing so. But the more he tries to not sound desperate, the more desperate he sounds. And he gets cut off again. So he calls again. You get the idea.
These are the scenes – these cleverly constructed set-pieces – that generate the biggest laughs. Because they build. And while they build, they take you with them. And the higher up the mountain they go, the more that’s on the line, so the more you laugh.
To bring this back to Rugged, it never had any of these scenes. Well, I guess the last third of the script had some. But there weren’t any in the first 2/3. The humor depended more on the “keep writing until I find a funny line for one of the girls to say” approach. And that manner is so tiring to read. Because when someone reads or watches a comedy, all they want to do is laugh. So they’re waiting for you to bring them those laughs. And when all you give them are these tiny dialogue breadcrumb jokes every once in awhile, you feel gypped.
The only other way to get genuine gut-busting laughs is to come up with a great hilarious character who, just by existing, is funny. So if you’re not a set-piece writer, you better be a comedic character creator. Like Melissa McCarthy’s breakout role in Bridesmaids. That character was so weird and so funny. When she stole those puppies, I was on the floor, rolling in artificial popcorn butter, laughing my ass off.
And, unfortunately, there weren’t any super-funny characters here. Everyone was pretty basic. You’ve got the drunk, the bitch, the naive girl, and the overly nice girl. And there’s actually a lesson to learn from this. All of these characters make sense within the construct of the story. You want these people to be real so that you can arc them over the course of the story.
But you then have to find a wild-card super-weirdo character somewhere. It could’ve been a guide. It could’ve been some Old Man Jones they run into while up on the mountain. Because if you don’t have the set-pieces, you need a character who’s their own set-piece. And we didn’t have that.
Anyways, I’m curious to know what you guys think of this and would love to get your thoughts on what makes a good comedy. I have mad respect for everyone who takes on this genre because it’s so damn hard. But I couldn’t get into this.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In coming up with a comedy idea, all you should care about is finding the idea that contains the most comedic potential. It doesn’t have to be a super clever premise, like The Hangover. It could be something simple, like Meet the Parents. As long as you can imagine a haul of funny set-pieces, you’ve probably got a good comedy idea.