Hey guys, I’m out of the office today.
But I wanted to leave you with a tip that you can apply to any script on your hard drive RIGHT NOW.
The tip came about after reading a few amateur scripts this week and noticing a number of bad dialogue scenes where the writers were making the same mistake.
One of the things screenwriting books tell you to do is “have more going on in your scene than just dialogue.” So instead of having two characters sit across from each other and talk at the kitchen table, have them talking to each other while they’re doing the dishes. The idea being that now they’re actually “doing something.”
Or move the scene somewhere else entirely – say, to a yoga class! This change in scenery coupled with a few yoga poses will bring the formally boring-ass dialogue to life.
Unfortunately, this is bad advice. All this does – regardless of the fact that yoga pants are the greatest invention of the 21st century – is make the scene more visually interesting. It doesn’t change that your characters are still just talking to each other.
What you want to do instead is create a reason for why the characters are doing something, and for that reason to have some stakes attached to it. By adding importance to the action, a scene with the exact same dialogue actually does come to life.
For example, let’s go back to that kitchen scene. What if we established that our heroine, JANE, has a nasty husband who goes apeshit if the house isn’t sparkling clean when he gets home from work? And he’s going to be home soon. Now, cleaning those dishes takes on a whole new meaning, right? If they’re not clean by the time Psycho Hubby gets back, there will be hell to pay. There are actual stakes attached to getting those dishes done.
Or let’s put Jane back in that yoga class with her friend, KERRY. This time, instead of using yoga as a location to spout off some boring dialogue you’re trying to get in, make it so Jane likes one of the guys in class. And Jane and Kerry map out a plan ahead of time to get his attention. These newfound stakes (trying to get this guy’s attention) give a formally directionless scene purpose.
The cool thing about this device is it improves the dialogue without you even having to change it. Let’s say that kitchen dialogue scene had Jane and Kerry discussing the difficulties of motherhood. Without Pyscho Hubby coming home, the conversation is just that, a conversation. With Psycho Hubby, the same conversation feels like it’s being used to fill in the silence and help alleviate the anxiety both women feel from that looming arrival.
The lesson here is to never have your characters performing random actions or going to random locations in the hopes that that will improve the scene. Create a purpose to the scene that includes stakes so that what the characters do actually matters. Only then will the dialogue come to life.
Genre: Buddy Cop Comedy
Premise: When a reckless cop who made his mark in the drug-fueled 80s is paired with a timid C.S.I. detective who prefers to hide behind his tools, the two must put aside their differences to take down a mysterious Scandinavian drug kingpin.
About: Colin Trevorrow has gone on record as saying this is the most fun he’s ever had writing a script. He and his writing partner on Cocked & Loaded, Derek Connolly, met as interns on SNL ten years prior, and sold the project as a pitch. While the two would each go on to their own solo careers, they continue to collaborate, most recently on the final chapter in the new Star Wars trilogy, Star Wars Episode IX: The Return of Maz Kanata.
Writers: Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly
Details: 102 pages (2009 draft)
The buddy cop genre will NEVER DIE!
So stop entertaining those false-ass notions!
This is good news, script homies. Like the rom-com, the zombie flick, and the body swap comedy, there is always an opportunity for someone to come in and find an original take on these sub-genres. Mind you, this is one of the biggest things that separates seasoned writers from beginners. The beginner ALWAYS writes the same versions of these movies that we’ve already seen. The veteran knows the script has NO SHOT unless they find a fresh angle.
For example, a beginner might say, “Female-driven comedies are big right now. What if I do a buddy cop comedy where one female character is white and the other is black!”
Sorry. That’s exactly why you’re still trying to get people to respond to your logline e-mails. That’s only an eensy-teensy-bitsy more original than, say, The Heat. You have to be a lot more original if you want to stand out.
Now, there’s something that happens in this industry that makes the above advice confusing. Every once in awhile, a producer will say, “What if we paired Amy Schumer and Leslie Jones in a buddy cop movie?” And everyone at the studio is like, “Oh my god, great idea! That would be so funny.” The producer then gets a writer, spits out a buddy cop script with a white partner and black partner, recruits Amy and Leslie with offers from the studio, and by the end of the year, they’re shooting.
“I thought you said that idea wasn’t original enough, Carson! Looks like you were wrong!”
First of all, I’m never wrong. Second of all, that situation is not your situation. That situation is a producer with the power to put a movie into production. Your situation is needing to stand out amongst thousands of other screenplays. That’s why your take on an established sub-genre needs to be unique. You’re trying to stand out amongst a sea of people.
Cocked & Loaded begins in the 80s, when cops were men, dammit. 20-something John Brock is living the dream. Not only is he a cop, but he’s partnered with Nick Angelano, the Dirty Harry of 1985. The two are mowing down a bunch of casino thugs, living the cop-thug life, when all of a sudden – BLAM! – Nick Angelano’s head explodes.
Behind it… the hairless Scandinavian known as Veli Verkko. Veli laughs at a stunned Brock before disappearing into the shadows. Brock screams up into the sky, noooooooooooo!
Cut to the present and Brock is still haunted by the loss of his partner. Bitter, hate-filled, repugnant, all Brock cares about is kicking ass and drinking whiskey. Which means he hasn’t changed much.
Across town we meet Glen Choder, crime scene investigator, who’s mapping out the murder of an old woman. Glen is a new breed of cop. Dresses well. Polite as fuck. And not too good with a gun. Which is why he sticks to mapping blood splatter.
I think you know where this is going. When a wealthy lobbyist is murdered, Brock and Choder are paired up to find out who did it! The lobbyist’s murder is a strange one, as it looks like he was injured out on the town, then came back to his hotel room where he bled out.
Choder finds some horse hair on the man and runs it by a local zoologist, who reveals that the hair comes from a rare horse you can’t even find in the United States. When further clues lead our partners to a VIP sex party that our victim used to frequent, things start to get really weird.
And wouldn’t you know it, all those animals and sex lead back to one person: Veli Verkko. With revenge finally within grasp, Brock locks and loads. But he’ll need to get past one last person to avenge his old partner – his new one.
So here’s the deal.
And I want you to write this down if you plan to write a comedy. Hell, write it down regardless of what genre you write in.
Generic concepts LEAD TO generic situations LEAD TO generic jokes.
If you find yourself struggling to write original scenes (or characters or dialogue), a lot of times it has less to do with the actual scenes, and more to do with the concept itself.
You see, when you start with a generic concept, you are laying the groundwork for a bunch of empty bland situations. This happens a lot in comedy sub-genres. You pair up two opposites to play the cops, and you think that’s all you need. The rest will write itself.
But because you’re starting with a base that’s so bland, there’s no soil to generate original ideas. This is why you want to START with as original a concept as you can. The more original it is, the more original the situtions and scenarios will be. You guys have all heard the saying: “It practically wrote itself.” The scripts that do this are scripts that are born out of original ideas.
Look at a script like Das Chimp. For those who missed Amateur Offerings, here’s the logline for the comedy: After a tragic tennis accident, a failed tennis pro seeks redemption by coaching a talented chimp and entering him in to Wimbledon disguised in a man-suit.
Whether you like that idea or not, you can see that because the concept is so original, it can be exploited for a ton of original scenes – scenes that could only exist in Das Chimp. In the opening scene, our protagonist’s doubles’ partner is killed in a tennis accident. You can’t write that scene into your average comedy. It’s specific to Das Chimp.
For me, that’s the primary way I judge comedy. Because when I’m not laughing, I’ve found that it’s often not about the jokes. It’s that the jokes could exist anywhere. They’re not specific to this idea.
Where does that leave Cocked and Loaded?
Well, that’s a good question. The script started off in bland buddy-cop territory. The investigation felt random (a horse hair?) and we’d find ourselves in set-pieces that seemingly had nothing to do with the story (a VIP sex party).
But then the clues started coming together, and we eventually find out (I need you to take a deep breath for this – don’t say I didn’t warn you) that our lobbyist was one of a group of rich men who pay to have rare animals shipped into the United States to have sex with (our victim died of horse-penis insertion). I have to admit, I had not seen that in a script before, so I had to give these guys points for originality.
My problem was more with the lead-up. Despite the plot being original, that’s not the most important thing in a comedy. The most important thing are the characters and the laughs. And this was light on both. Both our heroes were constructed too rigidly out of the Screenwriting 101 mould. They each had these big flaws. And they were both perfect opposites.
And because I didn’t buy into them as real people, I didn’t laugh much at what they said. And if I’m not laughing a lot in a comedy, it’s kinda hard to endorse it.
Maybe I’ll be laughing more this Friday… when I review Das Chimp.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When coming up with a comedy set piece, don’t approach it like, “Ooh, I bet I could find a lot of laughs in this scenario.” Approach it like, “What set-piece could I include that could only happen in this movie?” You’re bound to get a funnier scene out of it. Because, yeah, there are going to be laughs to be had in randomly crazy scenarios (like a sex party). But I promise the laughs will be bigger if the set-pieces are specific to your concept.
Genre: True Story
Premise: When a lawyer is able to defeat Chevron in Ecuadorian court to the tune of 19 billion dollars, Chevron hires the most lethal and dirtiest lawyer money can buy to get the verdict thrown out.
About: This script made last year’s Black List. I believe both Jay Carson and Matt Bai are political correspondents and that this is their first foray into the screenwriting world. They obtained the rights to the 2012 New Yorker article “Reversal of Fortune” by Patrick Radden Keefe, in order to write the script.
Writers: Jay Carson & Matt Bai
Details: 131 pages
It’s important to remember that there was a time in Hollywood when Eddie Murphy was making movies in fat suits that had characters communicating in fart-speak.
I’m sure during those dark hours that every development exec in Hollywood feared the next spec script to land on their desk. Who knows what kind of fat/bodily-function combination they might have to read that day. A talking fat dragon that spoke vomit? A fat grandma who spoke in burps? An insanely obese brain surgeon who spoke in that flapping-your-hand-in-your-underarm noise?
And yet, those days eventually passed.
I have to remind myself of this when I look down at my pile of scripts and see: True story, true story, true story, true story, true story, true story, true story. Sooner or later, Hollywood audiences will get bored of the true-story biopic combo and we’ll be able to read stuff that has some actual, you know, IMAGINATION.
Until then, true stories make up 8 out of the 10 scripts out there. It’s so hard to get excited to review these things cause they’re all the damn same. And that’s the writer’s fault. You guys should know that Hollywood is inundated with these things so if you’re going to write your own true story, it better damn well be different than all the others.
Let’s find out if Donziger is different from all the others.
Steven Donziger has just done the impossible. The 50-something legal ace went down to Ecuador and won the country a 19 billion dollar settlement against Chevron, after the oil giant spent the last 30 years turning the country into a chemical dump.
Donziger heads back home with plans to celebrate. But what he doesn’t know is that David O’Reilly, the CEO of Chevron, has zero plans to pay this dude. He goes out and hires Randy Mastro, a sick-ass laywer with a lethal history of doing whatever it takes to get the job done. O’Reilly wants Mastro to reverse the whole damn judgement.
Mastro shows why he’s nasty right off the bat. Whereas every other Chevron lawyer wants to exploit the impossible-to-prove technicalities of the case (was Chevron ever “really” in Ecuador?), Mastro wants to go after the man himself. If he can convince a judge that Donziger pulled off some bad things during the trial, he could get that verdict reversed.
Mastro keys in on a documentary that Donziger was shooting during the trial and is able to get his hands on all the footage, essentially giving him a behind-the-scenes look at every single thing Donziger did during the trial.
Mastro notices that a mysterious man keeps popping up – a dude named Carlos Bernstain – who may have been a liaison to Donziger pulling some back-door bribes with the Ecuadorian judge. Mastro uses that tidbit to get a judge to enact a Gestapo-esque raid of Donziger’s home, where every one of his family’s computers is taken.
Meanwhile, Donziger refuses to give in. He uses some legal tricks of his own, convincing every country in the world who works with Chevron that, if it meant taking their cash, Chevron would not respect their laws. This causes Chevron stock to plunge and the race for that 19 billion is on. But can Donziger keep it up? Can anyone really defeat a 200 billion dollar company? My man Donny Z’s about to find out.
Make no mistake. This is a documentary. I mean, it’s an article. But it’s really a documentary.
And only certain documentaries can be turned into movies. This is not one of those documentaries. There’s too much legal mumbo-jumbo. There’s too much backstory. The story plays out over too long of a time. These are huge red flags when you’re thinking about adapting an idea into a feature.
I’ll give you an example. We learn the lawsuit is only half against Chevron. The other half is against Texaco, who was the original company that destroyed Ecuador. Chevron only came in later, buying up Texaco, and is being sued for not cleaning up Texaco’s mess. There are a ton of boring details like this that the script is forced to cover.
Since documentaries are, basically, one continuous stream of exposition, nuanced details like the above work great in them. But in feature films, exposition is the enemy. In an ideal script, exposition would be less than 5%. Here, it’s like 30-40% And it’s hard for a movie to gain any momentum when the exposition takes up that amount of time.
Truth be told, exposition is one of the things I hate most about these stories. So much needs to be conveyed before we can start dramatizing the story (that’s a fancy way of saying: before the story can actually be entertaining). And, indeed, I was half-asleep during the first 40 pages of this. It was maddeningly boring.
The script doesn’t pick up until Mastro arrives. It’s strange because the script is titled, “Donziger,” but it should really be titled “Mastro.” He’s the only interesting thing about this. His nasty tactics to reverse this settlement were the only fun the script had. You always wanted to see how nasty he was going to get next.
Also, I’m a big fan of holier than though villains, guys who do terrible things but market it like they’re angels doing the world a favor. I loved how Mastro was destroying a man who was trying to help a country recover from being turned into a cancer-breeding chemical dump, yet he could go on about how his actions were not only moral, but essential to keeping the sanctity of law in tact. At one point he makes an argument that what Donziger did was actually worse than what Chevron did (for those keeping count, Chevron killed thousands of people in Ecuador and left many more with cancer).
Unfortunately, Donziger the character doesn’t become interesting until the last third of the screenplay, when his secrets start to be exposed, and he begins to lose his family due to putting the case before them. I found all of that to be quite good, but giving me a vanilla character for 90 pages and turning him chocolate for the last 40 isn’t going to cut it.
Ultimately, Donziger the script has some good stuff going for it. It explores the moral ground between good and bad and reminds us that gray will always be where the majority of us reside. But I have to give the script a “wasn’t for me.” It’s probably closer to “worth the read” but there are so many scripts in this genre right now that if you can’t give me a true story that stands out in some way, it’s hard to endorse it, well-written or not. One of your jobs as a screenwriter is to be original. Unfortunately, Donziger fails that test badly.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I always love when characters make a point via a good analogy. It’s just a fun way to convey what would otherwise be boring dialogue. So in one of Mastro’s first scenes, he needs to convince O’Reilly to do things his way. This is what he says…
MASTRO: You know why the Yankees win so much?
O’REILLY: Money. Everyone knows that.
MASTRO: It’s what they do with the money. They buy left handed hitting and left handed pitchers. Why?
O’REILLY: Well, that stadium—
MASTRO: Has a short porch in right field. Exactly. They build their team around that field. Always have. Babe Ruth. Reggie Jackson. Whitey Ford.
MASTRO: When you go into Yankee Stadium, the game is rigged. You think you’re playing the same game as the Yankees, but you’re not. It’s their field and they always have the advantage.
O’REILLY: So you need some lefties of your own, right?
MASTRO: (shaking his head) It’s impractical. You’ll never build as good a team for that ballpark as they have. You want to beat the Yankees, your best shot is to get them in another venue… say Fenway where right field goes on forever.
O’Reilly nods — he gets it.
I will only say this. There is no way Das Chimp is real. Someone’s trolling me. They have to be. Yet I have never laughed harder on a second page. It may have been a meta-laugh. I’m still not sure. But if it isn’t, Das Chimp may end up being the best script ever written (of course, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read past page 2. I’ll leave that up to you guys).
How to play: Read as much of each script as you can and submit your winning vote in the comments section. Winner gets a script review next Friday!
If you’d like to submit your own script to compete on Amateur Offerings, send a PDF of your script to firstname.lastname@example.org with the title, genre, logline, and why you think your script should get a shot. Good luck!
Title: Neither Angels Nor Demons
Logline: After a rabies epidemic ravages Los Angeles, an estranged father and his fifteen-year-old daughter attempt to escape from the evacuated city.
Why You Should Read: This site encourages new writers to start small and develop their craft. Well, I started big. I wrote a script that would require hundreds of CG shots and a multimillion-dollar budget to produce. — It was a risk in a business that relies on a movie’s opening weekend, but my selling point to producers is this: The size of the target audience. Also, I feel like the summer blockbuster is an underrepresented script here on AF. Within my story I focused on unique characters, inspired action and moments of raw emotion. All based on an original concept. I hope you enjoy the result.
Title: Das Chimp
Genre: Monkey Tennis
Logline: After a tragic tennis accident, a failed tennis pro seeks redemption by coaching a talented chimp and entering him in to Wimbledon disguised in a man-suit.
Why You Should Read: This is the greatest monkey tennis story ever told. It’s an ironic homage, a pastiche if you will – a spoof if you must – of the great animal-based comedies of the 90s like Beethoven, Flipper, and Dunston Checks In, each one of them an iconic work which has stood the test of time.
Title: Eat, Gain, Lose
Logline: After losing his gym and sinking into crippling debt, a fitness trainer packs on the pounds in a scheme to win the cash jackpot of a weight loss reality show.
Why You Should Read: Comedy has always been an elusive and challenging genre to write in. What strikes it hilarious to you might come off extremely idiotic or overly offensive to the person next to you. Additionally, the slow crash and burn of comedy at the box office has proved less to do with subjectivity of laughs and more to do with failing, floppy and emotionally vapid storytelling. If you’re like me and you’re tired of the countless comedies without substance but enjoy a solid story with comedy built around it, then I’d recommend you read my script.
Title: ACROSS THE LINE
Genre: Dark Dramedy
Logline: On a small-town Saturday night in 1979, beers are guzzled, tires (and other substances) are smoked, and mistakes are made, as redneck brothers Duane and Dale Culbertson set out to lay an ass-whoopin’ on the slimy son of a bitch that’s been messing around with Dale’s girlfriend.
Why You Should Read: I’m reaching out because too many good scripts tend to fall victim to the oversubscribed checklist mentality that shuns subtlety and smart storytelling for the sake of more explosions, purely external conflicts (of the ‘bad guys on your tail’ variety), and dumbed-down, oversimplified motivations. Everyone’s looking for ‘different,’ and no one’s looking for ‘better.’ There’s not enough scripts that take smart chances and break the rules. There’s not enough scripts that whisper confidently, instead of shouting. And there’s not enough people looking for these types of scripts. I’m also reaching out because I think it’s really cool that you gave extra profile to a script where an eighty-something-year-old Inuit woman gives a handjob to a teenager. You look past the checklist, and judge the script based on its ability to do what it was designed to do, whatever it may be.
Title: The Fishbowl
Logline: After getting blackout drunk, a short-fused self-loathing plumber awakens aboard an unmanned alien research vessel and must escape its superior technology before it leaves our world forever.
Why You Should Read: Mankind has an unquenchable thirst to explore, and thanks to the wonders of modern science we have already sent a rover to Mars and a satellite to a distant comet. As technology continues to develop we will send unmanned exploration vessels deeper and deeper into the cosmos — But what would happen if we were on the receiving end? This idea got me thinking and lead to this rather fun and entertaining look as we follow a rather unlikely hero in an extreme ‘what if’ situation. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on it.
A gay man trying to make it as an actor on Broadway is not a movie.
A gay man trying to make it as a boxer in Philly is.
A genius mathematician who wins the Nobel prize in Mathematics is not a movie.
A janitor at MIT who wins the Nobel Prize in Mathematics is.
A young free-spirited hippy girl experiencing a sexual awakening is not a movie.
A young uptight nun experiencing a sexual awakening is.
A millennial who becomes an overnight social media sensation is not a movie.
A baby boomer who becomes an overnight social media sensation is.
A superhero who handily fights crime 24/7 is not a movie.
A superhero who only gets his powers 1 hour a week is.
The true story of a talented doctor who became the most skilled surgeon of his generation is not a movie.
The true story of a surgeon who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the height of his career is.
A drop-dead gorgeous woman notorious for friend-zoning every guy she meets is not a movie.
A drop-dead gorgeous woman who gets friend-zoned for the first time in her life is.
A disgraced 5 star chef opening a big fancy restaurant in Paris is not a movie.
A disgraced 5 star chef opening a food truck in Brooklyn is.
A psychopathic Nazi who tried to kill more Jews than anyone else during World War 2 is not a movie.
A Nazi who secretly saved hundreds of Jews during World War 2 is.
Two life-long friends who go into the ice cream business together is not a movie.
Two enemies who open ice cream shops next to each other and battle for ice cream supremacy is.