Genre: Drama (1 hour pilot)
Premise: A young ex-con, desperate for an honest life, takes a job at a local dealership, unknowingly entering the mob-run underworld of the car business. Based on actual events.
Why You Should Read: This story takes place behind all the headlines that came out a few years back involving Chrysler reporting thousands of ‘fake sales’ in order to inflate sales reports for investors. As an ex con, recently released from federal prison for marijuana trafficking, I took a job at the only place that would hire a felon and still be able to make a decent living. As I soon learned, being a criminal didn’t hurt my chances starting a new life with a career, it actually opened the doors to even bigger money-making opportunities, unfortunately still on the wrong side of the law. This pilot was also given an 8/10 on The BLACKLIST for CHARACTERS, and we all know how important that is on Scriptshadow… Thank you for any consideration!
Writer: Ricky Young
Details: 61 pages
This script has a couple of good things going for it. For starters, it’s written by an ex-con familiar with this side of the world. As a writer, you should always be thinking about how you can market your script once you’re finished with it. Marketing isn’t as important as writing a great script with great characters. But if you don’t have an interesting concept or a clever way to market it, you’re leaving reads on the table. And since this business is a numbers game, you want as many reads as you can get.
Take the other criminal entry from last week’s Amateur Offerings, “Fighting Irish.” Here’s the logline for that one: “Two gypsy fighters from Dublin have lived lives of violence since they were young. When one decides he wants out, what will he do when his father is released from prison and gets entangled in the criminal world of the other?” This is not a bad logline. But there’s nothing that stands out about it. The only element that could be construed as unique is the gypsy aspect, and that’s pushing it.
When you come back to Car God, I’ve got this: “the mob-run underworld of the car business,” and, “as an ex-con released from federal prison…I took a job at the only place that would hire a felon…” A unique attractor (I’ve never heard anything about the mob run car business) AND the author really lived it?? That’s a powerful combination.
And it’s a reminder to you guys that you’ve got to think about this stuff before you put pen to pixel. Imagine yourself in 6 months when your script is done and you have to start telling people about it. Does any part of your pitch (a clever concept, the story behind the script, your own connection to it) sound exciting? Guys – getting people to read your script is one of the hardest things to do in this business. Who wants to read yet another script that, in their experience, is probably going to be terrible? So there’s got to be something in your pitch that moves the needle.
Okay, let’s see if Car God lives up to its pitch.
27 year-old Ricky Young has just finished a stint in prison. He’s eager to get back to his wife, Brooke, and his young son. But, see, getting out of prison doesn’t work like it does in the movies. Ricky first has to find a job. And once he finds a job, his parole officer has to approve a “home pass.” So the tortured Ricky is finally back in the real world, yet he can’t see the only people in the world he cares about.
Ricky applies everywhere (even Taco Bell), but as you’d expect, no one’s eager to hire an ex-con. So Ricky gets a job in job hell – a call center. Meanwhile, across town we meet 63 year-old Carl Montana, a mobbish car dealer who runs his dealership like Mussolini. If you’re a salesman for Carl and you don’t close your deals? Carl is going to make you regret it.
We get a first-hand taste of this when Carl plunges a screwdriver into the neck of a former employee who tried to get out. I guess that lucky fellow won’t be getting his year-end bonus.
Ricky eventually gets fired from the call center, putting his family reunion in jeopardy. And if that’s not bad enough, Ricky’s parole officer is secretly fucking his wife. Yikes.
In the end, Ricky stumbles into Carl’s dealership and Carl gives him a shot to close a deal. If he succeeds, he’s got the job. If not, he’s back out on the streets. Will Ricky pull it off? And even if he does, is he really going to be happy once he finds out what his wife has been up to?
I agree that the character work is strong here (with one exception that I’ll get to in a bit). The biggest accomplishment is how real Ricky feels. And a lot of that comes from the writer being able to draw from real-life experience. I say this all the time but it’s true – when you’ve lived it or you’ve researched the hell out of it, it makes a difference on the page. There’s more detail to every moment, and that detail goes a long way towards suspending our disbelief.
However, I’d be curious to know what the Black List rated Car God in terms of plot. Because that’s the pilot’s big weakness. Here’s my main gripe: We do in 62 pages what we probably could have done in 32.
A pilot is supposed to be exciting and unpredictable. Car God is anything but. By page 20, I realized that everything in the story was pushing towards a “Carl hires Ricky” ending. And for that reason, the script took on this inevitability where it felt like I was in a screenplay elevator, an instrumental version of Sussudio playing in the background, me desperately wondering how much longer it would take before I got to my floor.
One option to fix these “inevitability problems” is to take what was originally your ending and make it your midpoint. Not only does that speed the plot up, but it forces you to get more creative with your storytelling. Now you have to come up with an entire second half. And if you’re not quite sure where that’s going to go, then neither will your reader be. Advantage: you.
Another note. You need to push your scenes more. The big moments here weren’t big enough, clever enough, inspired enough. For example, you set up this whole sinister call center with their sketchy signing mandate and weirdo boss. But then Ricky gets fired for… going to the bathroom?? It was weak sauce. A firing is a big scene. Get more creative. Have fun with it. I don’t know, have him figure out one of his co-workers is stealing money and he tries to do the right thing but ends up getting blamed for it (or something). But going to the bathroom is way too boring for a moment that big.
Ditto when Ricky closes the deal at the dealership. He walks into a room and… gets a guy to sign papers?? The big payoff being that he learned how to make people sign papers from signing them himself when accepting the call center job?
Umm… you don’t need to learn how to sign papers yourself to teach other people how to sign papers. I’m pretty sure paper-signing is self-explanatory. And yes, I know the signer was blind but that was immaterial.
This spoke to something bigger about Ricky, which is that he’s too passive. I’ll get into that more in “What I Learned.” But for right now, we need more variety in the plotting. The story can’t feel inevitable. The big scenes need to be more imaginative. And, finally, Ricky has to have a little more backbone.
Despite this critique, I would DEFINITELY encourage Ricky to keep writing. All of the stuff that I’ve mentioned here can be learned.
Script link: Car God
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Your main character has to be good at something. Ricky pretty much stumbles through this story, riding shotgun, displaying no noticeable skills. That’s fine if that’s his character TO AN EXTENT. But here’s a guy who’s in prison. So I’m guessing he’s been active in some area of his life (selling drugs maybe?). We have to see some of that hustle, that activity, come out somewhere. Because main characters who are along for the ride can’t anchor major TV shows. They’ve got to be good at something and they’ve got to be active. Even the wimpy Walter White was a chemistry god.
I used to play tennis competitively growing up. For awhile, it was the only thing I cared about. I played as much as I could. I would routinely stay after practice after everybody else went home, either practicing against the wall or practicing my serve. I used to set up five cones in each service box and I wouldn’t leave until I’d hit them all down.
I worked my way up through the tournament system. I got a city ranking, then a regional ranking, then a national ranking. Then I graduated college. After college, the only way to keep playing is to play amateur tournaments and work your way up into the pros. It’s extremely competitive.
As I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life – was I really going to try and pursue a professional tennis career? – I attended a professional tournament (as a spectator, not a player). Off near the food court was a serve booth with a radar gun. This allowed them to measure your serve speed. I was curious to see how fast my serve was so I went to try it out.
Keep in mind, I’d hit half a million serves by that point in my life. I’d mastered everything from the deep leg bend, to tossing the ball out in front, to left arm up, to rotating your hips, to pronating your wrist. To give you some perspective here, the fastest servers in the world can hit 145 mph. I went up there, put everything into it, and I hit… a 117 mph serve.
While this was happening, there was a group of guys off to the side making fun of their friend. He was a tall guy, kind of muscular, and they were trying to get him to serve because he’d never touched a racket in his life. He finally relents, grabs a racket, and prepares to serve. Whereas I had had perfect technique, this guy clearly had no idea what he was doing. He wasn’t even holding the racket properly!
As his friends cracked up off to the side, this guy managed to toss the ball up and…
I’ll get to what happened next in a second.
First I want to talk about how long it takes to make it as a screenwriter. Because my opinion is that ANYBODY can become a professional screenwriter. Yes, you read that right. I think anybody can become a professional screenwriter. However, how long it takes will depend on two main variables – how much talent you have and how hard you work.
10 years is how long it’s going to take most screenwriters to make it. That may sound like a long time. But let me ask you this. In what other field does it take less than 10 years to become one of the best 10,000 people in the world at something? You have to do your bachelors, your masters, your doctorate, and your internship. That will take a decade for most of you. However, it’s possible to make it sooner.
The 7 year plan requires that you’ve taken writing seriously before you got into screenwriting. A lot of people who get into screenwriting do so simply because they like movies. But people who have been writing short stories and reading lots of books and who have taken an interest in the craft of writing before they ever wrote a screenplay are going to have a head start. But 7 years still sounds like a long time to you. How can we get there sooner?
If you make it as a professional screenwriter within 5 years of starting, you’re a legitimate superstar. These writers are like the 7 yearsers, but on steroids. They’ve not only been writing since they were young, they’ve probably had things published in local newspapers or on popular niche websites. They probably worked at their school paper. They may have written a couple of self-published books that did okay on Amazon. This is also where the importance of talent starts creeping in. These people seem to have an accelerated understanding of the English language and how words are put together. They also inherently understand how to hold readers’ attention. That’s what gets them to the finish line faster. But 5 years is, like, so long. How can we get there sooner?
Before we get to the 3 year example, I want to share with you what happened with that first-time-ever server from the tennis tournament. So yeah, as his friends were laughing away, the guy awkwardly tosses the ball up and, out of nowhere – BAM! – he just freaking clocks the thing. Everybody looked to the radar gun. The verdict? – 135 mph.
A snapshot of his friends showed 5 guys with their jaws dropped. But their jaws were nowhere near as close to the ground as mine. This guy had clearly never played tennis before and he had just hit a serve that was 20 mph faster than the accumulation of my 15 years of tennis experience.
Something about this moment woke me up. I realized that I didn’t have an inherent talent to play this sport. If some bozo off the street could whack a serve faster than anything I could dream of, maybe it was best to move my pursuits to another endeavor. So I moved away from trying to play competitive tennis. How is this in any way inspiring? Stay tuned. There may be a silver lining to this story yet.
The people who make it in three years are true wunderkinds. These tend to be people who were in all the advanced English classes growing up and likely went to Ivy League schools – not because their daddies got them in. But because they genuinely displayed a talent for the written word. These people are vociferous readers and respect the process of writing and pick everything up lightning fast. They’ve likely already been successful in a parallel writing industry before they came to screenwriting (journalism, novels, writing for a major online publication). 3 yearsers rarely come out of nowhere. They’ve been primed to be successful at this. And, of course, they’re extremely talented.
At this point you’re talking about the elite of the elite. This happens maybe once every few years? Personally, I think 1 yearsers are pocket 3 yearses. They’re everything the 3 yearsers are, plus they had a major contact in the industry and they got lucky (maybe a producer was looking for that exact type of script they wrote at that exact time). However, these people are still super talented. I know Dan Fogelman (This is Us) told me he broke in off his very first script. So it can be done. But I wouldn’t count on this.
This leads us to the question that everybody wants to know. Which is: How do I get there faster? I want to be a 5 year, not a 7 or a 10. And my answer to that is, you only have control over one thing: how hard you work at it. If you write, say, 4 hours a day, you’re going to get there twice as fast as if you write 2 hours a day.
And, on top of that, you want to work smart. You don’t want to blindly write as much as possible. You want to get feedback, you want to find out what you’re doing wrong, you want to be working on improving weaknesses in your writing with every new script, every new draft. Talent is going to affect your half-life, but hard work is going to be the ultimate difference-maker.
Going back to our never-played-tennis-before 135 mph server. Here’s the thing with that guy. If you would have put him on the court with me? I would’ve destroyed him. Sure, he has his 135 mph an hour serve. But he would’ve gotten maybe two of them in the whole match. And because of all the hard work I’d put in, I would’ve known exactly how to beat the guy (basically, if I just kicked up every shot to his backhand with a ton of topspin, I would’ve made him look like a fool). The point being, talent is important. But hard work can get you past the talented people.
One last thing. For everyone who’s been at this for more than 10 years and they still haven’t made it, I can tell you exactly why that’s the case. You’re doing one of four things wrong. You either haven’t been writing enough, are too closed off in your thinking, haven’t gotten enough consistent quality feedback, or haven’t gotten your writing out there enough. And you guys know exactly which of these you’re doing. So make that change and, I promise you, good things will start happening.
Now get to work!
I want to apologize in advance. I have a huge day ahead of me so I don’t have time to do a full screenplay review. Plus I’m still basking in the wonderful light of yesterday’s great screenplay. I don’t want to ruin that buzz by injecting some Max Landis script into my brain about time-traveling clowns that attack a skyscraper.
But I still want to leave you guys with a screenwriting tip.
So, I’ve been watching the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Master Of None. I’m four episodes in. For those who aren’t fans of Ansari, you should at least check out Episode 4, “First Date.” It’s a great example of what I tell you to do every day – find a fresh take on an old idea. Aziz and co-creator Alan Yang take the time worn cliche of a first date and infuse a modern spin into it. It was great.
However, the three episodes that preceded First Date weren’t very good. And as I was watching them, I was trying to figure out why. Aziz and Yang had set the first two episodes in Italy and the third, which deals with religion, back home. A common problem I noticed was that everything in these episodes felt staged. You could feel the actors reading their lines. You could see them trying to hit their marks.
For example, there’s a moment where Dev’s friend Alan comes to visit him, and the two go to the grocery store to talk. The scene was so staged and so artificial, they might as well have shown the entire production team behind them. Or there was a scene where Dev’s entire family goes out to eat at a restaurant. You could practically see the actors waiting for their turn to say their line.
At first I thought they may not have had the locations for long and had to cover everything in one take. Or the actors were still getting warmed up for the new season. But then I realized the problem wasn’t either of these things. The problem was in the writing. And it’s actually a mistake every writer makes multiple times in a screenplay.
What is it?
They hang their characters out to dry.
Hanging your characters out to dry means placing them in a scene with no purpose. No one is trying to get anything (a goal), and therefore the only thing driving the scene is dialogue. Now Master of None gets away with this better than others because Aziz and Yang write funny dialogue. But even if you’re funny, leaving your characters out to dry kills the scene.
The reason your actors’ movements and lines are so staged is because the characters don’t have any purpose in the scene. They’re literally at a supermarket, as actors, to film a scene. They’re not at the supermarket, as characters, to get anything.
The simple solution to this is to always have some kind of goal driving the scene. It could be the overall goal of the story that’s brought them to that location. Or it could be a more immediate goal that’s brought them there. The idea, then, is to have them attempt to achieve their objective, then make their dialogue secondary.
For example, there’s a later plot point where someone steals Dev’s wallet. Had you taken Dev and Alan and placed them in that same supermarket because they think the man who stole Dev’s wallet works there, now you’ve given the characters an objective in the scene. They can exchange virtually the same dialogue as they did before, but with this added element of snooping around, trying to find their man.
The thing with TV, however, is that it’s not as plot-heavy as features. So you’re not always going to have juicy plot points to play with. However, if you don’t have plot pushing the scene, make sure you have conflict. Which leads us to a second option to save your scenes: Add an issue between the two characters.
You’ll actually see this in reality TV a lot. Whenever they put two (or more) characters in a scene, they always make sure they have an issue to settle. Maybe one of them was spreading rumors. Maybe they got in a fight last night. Maybe there’s some unrequited romantic interest. Or maybe they just don’t like the way their friendship is going at the moment and want to address it. An issue gives a scene a point, as the drive to address the issue will create conflict and compel us, the audience, to see it resolved.
You never want to hang your characters out to dry. You can’t place them in a scene with no purpose. And no, exposition doesn’t count as “purpose.” Having characters talk about the big wedding that weekend isn’t entertaining. Make sure the characters either have a goal for being where they are or they have an issue to resolve. There ARE other ways to make scenes work, but these two options should take care of the majority of your scenes.
Genre: Drama (True Story)
Premise: (from Black List) The unfolding of the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in United States history – an incredible true story that pits corrupt educators against dogged student journalists against the back-group of a cutthroat Long Island suburb.
About: This one finished low on last year’s Black List. To be honest, it sounded a little dry and I originally had no plans to read it. But then I saw it was written by Mike Makowsky, who wrote the script, I Think We’re Alone Now, a spec sale from a couple of years ago about a man who attempts to keep order in a small suburb after the apocalypse. I liked that script a lot so decided to give this one a chance. Holy moses I’m glad I did!
Writer: Mike Makowsky
Details: 122 pages
I wish I had more time to go into all the ways this script is amazing. But it’s a long day so, unfortunately, I’ll only be able to focus on the highlights.
Bad Education introduces us to 50-something Frank Tassone, the Long Island school chief for the 4th best public high school in the country, Roslyn. Frank is the single nicest and most caring man you’ll ever meet. From the outset, we see that he genuinely cares about the students and the school, going so far as to keep his doors open all day to any student, teacher, or parent who wants to talk.
Frank’s right-hand woman is district business manager Pam Gluckin. Pam is trying to help Frank fulfill his ultimate dream – make Roslyn the number 1 public school in the country. And to do that, you need money. You have to make the school great so that families want to move to the community and raise their kids here. So Frank and Pam aren’t afraid to, say, build a bridge walkway between two wings if it cuts a minute off the time for students to get from one class to another – even if it cost 12 million dollars.
Rachel Kellog is a curious nerdy student who works for the school paper and who seems miffed by the school’s excessive spending and wants to write an article about it. She interviews Pam about some of the odd budget items, and finds a string of charges the school has made which don’t make sense.
But it’s the parents in the community who notice that Pam recently bought a prime piece of real estate in one of the most expensive getaway spots in the nation – The Hamptons. Something isn’t adding up. When the board confronts Pam about this, they find that she’s basically using the school credit card to buy… everything.
The board wants to call the police but Frank talks them through what that means. If Roslyn is seen as a school that’s allowed this to happen, what happens when the annual budget renewal comes up and they’re penalized? The school loses its prestigious national ranking, kids from Roslyn no longer get priority looks from the best colleges, families start moving out of the district to better schools, property values in the city go down – everything could fall apart.
So the board agrees to fire Pam and keep the matter quiet.
But what they don’t know is that there’s someone way way worse than Pam. And it’s the man who’s guiding them through this mess. Frank has many secrets, and when it’s all said and done, he very well may have stolen 10 million dollars from the town’s taxpayers. It’s going to take a curious nerdy student who won’t take no for an answer, however, to expose that scam to both the board, and the community.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. This isn’t exactly sexy subject matter. This is why I tell you guys to be wary of pursuing dry concepts. Even when you achieve the impossible and write one of the best scripts of the year, it’s STILL going to struggle to get noticed and made.
I have no doubt that the only reason this script didn’t finish in the top 3 of last year’s Black List is because people saw the subject matter and said, “That sounds boring as shit,” then didn’t read it.
However, Bad Education is anything but boring. This is screenwriting at its best. Outside of the concept, it did everything right, taking chances, giving us a fascinating main character, keeping things unpredictable, and pulling off some of the best setups and payoffs I’ve seen in years.
Let’s start with the main character, Frank Tassone. This is how you write a great character, folks. This man is our villain. He is a terrible human being. Yet through the first half of the script? We love him. He lives to help students become the best they can be. He helps friends get their kids into the best schools. He runs book clubs to enrich the minds of people in the community. He was so convincing as a great person, I started to think that the real villain would be introduced later in the script. Cause it couldn’t possibly be him.
This is how you construct a great villains, guys. You make them complex. If they’re on-the-nose and obvious, they’re boring. But if the guy who’s eventually going to steal 10 million dollars from people is sweet and helpful, you’re confused, and you have to keep reading to find out how this man could possibly end up being a bad guy.
But Makowsky doesn’t stop there. Frank is widowed for 30 years. Frank is living in the closet. He’s a gay man who has a secret partner, Steve, who he’s afraid to tell others about less they judge him. On top of THAT (spoiler) he has an affair with another man, one of his former students.
There’s just so much going on with this guy. Every 40 to 50 something actor in town should be breaking down doors to get this part. It’s the kind of role every actor dreams of.
The next thing Makowsky did was one of the harder things to do in screenwriting – introduce a lot of characters and give those characters an equal amount of screen time so we get to know and care about their storylines, and do all this without spreading himself too thin. Because that’s the danger when you write in a lot of characters. You spread yourself thin and the reader gets bored cause there’s no one to focus on. I’ve seen many a script die out because of this problem.
We get to know Frank, we get to know Rachel, we get to know Pam, we get to know Big Bill, Frank’s friend on the board. We get to know faculty at the school, board members, students, parents, the children of some of the key parents. You have to remember that you only get 55 scenes in a script. So do the math. If you give, say, six characters 5 of their own scenes each, that’s 30 scenes right there. Which means you now only have 25 scenes left for your main character. So it’s really hard to manage that many characters and, at the same time, get to know all of them.
But where this script really shines is in its setups and payoffs, which Makowsky could teach a course in. For example, Frank is friends with Big Bill, a guy on the board. Early on, we learn that Frank got Big Bill’s less-than-academically-inclined son into Penn State. Bill’s got another bad student who’s about to graduate high school, and Frank assures Big Bill he’ll help him get into the best school possible.
So later, when the Pam thing is caught by the board and Big Bill is the primary member who wants to call the cops, Frank explains what that means. If they’re outed for corruption, Roslyn High now wears a scarlet letter as far as the colleges are concerned. When that happens, they’ll stay away from accepting Roslyn kids. This realization pays off that earlier discussion that if Bill calls the cops, his son will go to a shitty college. Since Bill is the ringleader of the board, this is a major turning point in the story, since he now rallies the group to cover up Pam’s activity and move on.
But my favorite payoff was one of the final scenes. And, actually, this was probably my favorite scene of the year. Earlier in the script, there’s a delusional parent who is convinced her dumb son should be in the advanced classes, and she keeps coming to the school and pestering Frank about it. Frank politely engages the woman, and politically massages the explanation for why the boy “isn’t quite there yet.”
Towards the end of the script, Frank’s secrets are rapidly being exposed. The Feds are moving in. The board members, his closest allies, are turning on him. He begins to realize that he might be going to prison. And right as that’s happening, the same mother and her boy come into his office and she asks if her son can read a letter he’d written to Frank. Frank, his life imploding exponentially with each additional minute, begrudgingly accepts and the educationally-challenged kid can’t even properly read his own letter, mispronouncing a key word in the middle (he keeps pronouncing “accepting” “assepting”) and going back over to try it again.
I want to see an actor’s interpretation of this reaction so badly, that that alone is reason enough to make this film.
On top of all this, when you read the final title of the movie, it will infuriate you, as it represents everything that’s wrong with our government these days.
Man, I wish I could say this was a slam dunk green light but the lack of a hook severely limits it. I mean, yeah, you have scandal. But it’s not like it’s Bernie Madoff scandal. It’s some obscure school principal guy in Long Island. I just don’t know if people would care. Or, more importantly, I don’t think producers would think people would care.
Maybe this needs a Netflix to take a shot at it. The good news is, if they get this into the right actor’s hands, a big actor WILL want to play this part. And if there’s any takeaway lesson from this script, that’d be it. If you’re going to write something that doesn’t have an easy hook, make sure it has a great role for an actor. Cause once you get one of those guys on your film, you get financed and you get made.
God, was this good. An awesome early week surprise.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (TOP 15 SCRIPT!!)
[ ] genius
What I learned: Wanna make your script look smart? Look clever? Create a physical symbol that represents the crux of the story’s conflict. Then, keep repeating that symbol throughout the script. When Rachel first shows up to ask Frank questions, she wants to know why they’re spending 12 million dollars on a pointless elevated bridge walkway when the school can’t even fix its rampant water leakage problem. This water leakage is then repeatedly referenced in scenes. And in a great payoff, when Frank finally squares off with Rachel in the school hallways, guess what’s happening? The ceiling is leaking.
Premise: An Amazonian goddess living on a remote island has her world turned upside-down when a World War 1 Allied spy shows up on her island, with the German army in tow.
About: The Wonder Woman project has had quite an exciting history. First it was asked if audiences would pay for a female-led superhero film. Next came the outrage of it taking so long to put a female director behind one of these films (Patty Jenkins), then came early reports that the movie was terrible. Tack onto that DC’s struggles with finding their identity as a franchise, and you had one big giant question mark. Well, Wonder Woman answered that question mark with a resounding 100 million dollars, 30 million more than most analysts were predicting just a few weeks ago. The movie is a hit, and is, in fact, the best film of the new DC universe by far. The writing situation on Wonder Woman is an interesting one. Credit goes to Allan Heinberg, who some would frustratedly point out is not female. However, Heinberg is a successful TV presence who’s written almost primarily on shows that are popular with the female demographic (Gray’s Anatomy, The Catch, Scandal, Sex and The City). This is his first feature credit.
Writers: Allan Heinburg (story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs)
Details: Coming in at a Zack Snyder friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Since we’re talking about Wonder Woman here, I’m going to throw her lasso around myself and be honest: I was not expecting much from this movie. I was on the fence on whether I would even see it and then I saw this Gal Gadot Conan skit and was taken by Gadot’s innocent charm. She didn’t seem to be in hyper-sell mode or “I would rather be anywhere but here” mode like most actors promoting their films. Displaying her cute dorky side, she genuinely seemed like she was enjoying herself.
So that got me to the theater. But then what happened?
I always say that you know if a movie is going to work immediately. In that first scene, you can tell that everything’s clicking. It was the right script choice to open with that scene. The directing is confident. The lead actor is dialed in. The score hits just the right chords.
Wonder Woman didn’t have any of that.
If I’m being honest (I have to since I’m still wearing Wonder Woman’s lasso), the whole all-women’s warrior island thing bordered on goofy. Women running around, battling each other, spinning off horses and shooting arrows at each other upside-down. Everything looked too clean, too staged. I was thinking, “Man, I don’t know about this.”
However, I got used to it surprisingly quickly, mainly when my new slightly more than platonic crush Gal Gadot showed up. And once I was in, I was in for good.
The story really picks up, however, when Steve Trevor arrives. Steve is an American (I think?) spy who’s infiltrated the German army, which is in the thick of World War 1. This is the first man Wonder Woman has ever seen, so some time is required to get used to him. But once she learns that there is a war going on and that people are dying, she becomes convinced that Ares, the God of War, is behind it. She wants Steve to take her to the front so she can kill Ares and stop the war (this is “G” in the “GSU” for those taking notes).
Steve is all, like, “I’m sorry but say that one more time?” But he quickly realizes that his only shot off this island is feeding into this woman’s delusions, so he agrees to take her to the front.
Once in Europe, the two recruit a rag-tag team of idiots, former colleagues of Steve’s, to get into the heart of Germany, where Wonder Woman believes Ares is hiding. However, the journey proves more challenging than she originally anticipated, seeing as she doesn’t know which human form Ares has taken. There’s also some chick named Dr. Poison or something who’s creating the ultimate gas weapon that will win the war for Germany. Can Wonder Woman, and shifty Steve, stop her in time? If there are going to be Wonder Woman sequels, they better.
What was once old is now new again.
Wonder Woman takes a gamble by going full origin-story on us, a former staple of the superhero industry that’s been abandoned after numerous geek-boys proclaimed the predictable format boring-sauce.
But Wonder Woman teaches us a lesson on this front. After a trend has been banished for long enough, a window will open up for you to use it again. It’s simple math. The reason people wanted the trend gone in the first place was because it had become predictable. Therefore it would only stand to make sense that if it were gone for long enough, bringing it back would be unpredictable.
But you have to be there right when the window opens. Arrive too early and people are like, “Really? Another origin story?” Arrive at just the right time and can slip into the home of genius choices. “Oh, it was such a fresh choice to go back to the origin story!”
But there’s something bigger going on here. There was a time, long ago, when large-scale movies only had to do one thing to be successful – take you to a place you’d never been to before. Back when the internet was called an encyclopedia, just taking us to a new country or a new time was reason enough to plop down money at the theater.
But these days, we’re so inundated with visual information, both real and imagined, that that art has been lost. How do you take someone somewhere new when they can go anywhere they want with the click of a button? When I was in Prague last month, I went to a museum. I wasn’t enjoying myself and I wondered why. I realized it was because I had seen all of this stuff (in some form or another) already.
Wonder Woman came in with this island we’d never been to (I may have been jarred by it, by I admit it was unique) then joined a war that we rarely get to experience in cinema (World War 1), since almost all war stories choose World War 2 as their center point.
These choices are what made Wonder Woman fresh. I truly felt like I was somewhere I didn’t know anything about. And this goes back to a constant Scriptshadow theme, what some may say is the key to writing something great. You must look for ways to make your story fresh. Whether it be location, time, point of view, cleverness of concept, a radical character. Wonder Woman used time and place to give us a different experience. What have you done to achieve the same in your screenplay?
However, this is only part of the reason Wonder Woman succeeds. The other reason? Take a guess.
Wonder Woman herself?
The other reason Wonder Woman succeeds is the crackling relationship between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. This was a deft and daring move by the writers, who were probably tempted to move away from a love story, less the fake outrage crowd blast them for daring to imply a powerful woman could be interested in a man.
But what a great choice, and the best example of smart screenwriting in the script. Take note aspiring screenwriters, as this is a lesson you’ll want to learn. What you want to do in most stories is establish a main character with a belief system. For Wonder Woman, it’s to be truthful and always do what’s right.
That way, when you build in the other half of the relationship, you can create a character WHO HOLDS OPPOSING BELIEFS. So who is Steve Trevor? He’s a spy. He… say it with me… LIES FOR A LIVING. Placing someone who tells the truth opposite someone who lies is the kind of choice that studios pay big bucks for.
And it’s not just to win the “correct screenwriting decision” award that gets you points with bloggers like myself. When you do this correctly and establish opposing belief-systems with your main characters, you ensure a stream of conflict between those characters that lasts – ORGANICALLY – the entire movie. Why “organically?” Because the differences are built into the core of the characters. They can never agree because their beliefs are fundamentally the opposite of each other. Even the most basic conversation will lead to an impasse.
Even when these views don’t come up, and the characters are, say, enjoying a dance together (like they do in the film), there is still an underlying tension since the characters know they can never be together because they lead diametrically opposing lives.
If you want to know why these guys get paid the big bucks, it’s because they know how to do things like this. And you can learn it to! Now that you know about it, study it. Watch for it in films. It’s at the core of a lot of great movie relationships.
Now whenever I write a positive review and only give the script a “worth the read,” commenters think there’s some conspiracy involved. So I’m going to tell you why Wonder Woman only gets a “worth the watch” from me despite my, so far, glowing review.
It’s because the villain is so effing bad. Like embarrassingly bad. When you don’t have a threatening villain, your hero’s journey feels too easy. We must always doubt that our hero will succeed. We never once doubted that Wonder Woman would win here, and it’s specifically because the villain never felt like a threat. One of these days I’m going to have to write an article on villains since everyone’s obviously forgotten how to write them. But it was a major mark against an otherwise good movie.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I would be careful about making your villain a late surprise reveal. It’s not impossible to make it work. But by keeping the villain a secret from the audience the whole movie, you’ve lost the opportunity to develop that character as a villain. This forces you to develop their villain-ness within the last 20 minutes of the movie, which is not easy to do. Again, it can be done (The Fugitive comes to mind) but I would think long and hard about this choice, as it usually ends up like it does here in Wonder Woman – dumb.