Genre: True Story
Premise: (from Black List) Based on real events, the story of the writing of Fatal Vision, the 1983 bestselling true crime classic that chronicles the summer journalist Joe McGinness spent with “Green Beret Killer” Jeffrey McDonald while he was on trial for the brutal murder of his wife and children.
About: This script finished with 14 votes on the 2015 Black List, placing it on the top half of the list. The writer, Matthew Scott Weiner, got his career started in animation. This is his breakout script as a screenwriter.
Writer: Matthew Scott Weiner
Details: 117 pages
I suppose a story about the writing of a book that most people have never heard of isn’t the fastest way to fame and glory. But if the story behind that experience is good enough, the popularity of the book doesn’t matter. In fact, the movie can propel the little-known book to become popular. A little art imitates life imitates commerce imitates art sorta thing.
What’s funny about this script is that for the first 30 pages, I thought it was about the Green RIVER killer. Not the Green BERET killer. So I’m sitting there going, “Wow, so this guy murdered 30 women over a decade, then murdered his own family, and he managed to get away with it???” Once I realized they were separate cases, things got a lot clearer.
As we all know, writing about writers is akin to blending a blender. Sure, it can be done. But aren’t there better things to blend? The biggest problem is that nobody likes to watch someone writing. It’s the most cinematically uninteresting thing in existence.
However, props to Weiner. He found a way around this. By having the lead be a journalist writing a book, he essentially turns this from a movie about a writer to a movie about an investigator. Since investigators are active and investigate interesting things, you now have yourself an active narrative.
And a mystery about whether a man killed his family or not definitely has the potential to be good. The question is, did Weiner pull it off?
The year is 1978. Joe McGinnis is an award-winning writer who penned one of the most influential books ever, The Selling of the President (about Richard Nixon). One problem. That was ten years ago. McGinnis is in danger of becoming a has-been if he doesn’t get another book out soon.
Joe is currently obsessed with a guy named Jeff MacDonald. Jeff was a Green Beret who, in 1970, was knocked out in his home by a group of Manson-like hippies, who then killed Jeff’s wife and two daughters. Jeff’s story has a lot of holes though, and the military, who thinks Jeff did it, decides to try him. Jeff wins the case and moves on with his life.
However, because of some legal glitch, a military trial of this nature is not considered official under civilian law. So now, eight years later, Jeff must go back to civilian court for the same case. Joe reaches out to Jeff and asks if he can write a book about the case, and Jeff, being a fan of Joe’s previous book, says yes.
What follows is Joe’s attempt to get close enough to Jeff to get those nitty-gritty details that nobody else knows yet. The thing is, Jeff is such a narcissist, and seems so unmoved by the death of his family, that Joe becomes convinced that Jeff had to have done it.
However, that’s not really what the screenplay is about. It’s more about Joe’s belief that Jeff isn’t getting a fair trial. Therefore, he makes the central theme of his book that injustice. (spoiler) But when Jeff receives a guilty verdict, Joe’s publisher demands that Joe focus less on the injustice and more on the fact that this guy is a cold-blooded killer. Joe must weigh the importance of his friendship with Jeff before deciding which road to go down.
Let me start off by saying that, after this script, I’m convinced that the better avenue for this type of storytelling is the docu format. Both the fictional and docu formats have their strengths and weaknesses. And the strength of the docu is that it can get into the nitty gritty details of the murder. The fictional format doesn’t do that well. Instead, the fictional format is good at exploring and dramatizing the relationships between the characters.
Let me give you an example. Castle Drive had this ENDLESSSSSSSS sequence of lawyers trying to figure out if an ice pick (the weapon the killers used) could have caused 48 holes in a single sweater. That’s the sort of thing that, if I was watching a Making a Murderer type show and they could show me all the experts and reenact the stabbing for me, I could get into that.
But here it was like, “OKAY ALREADY!!! WE GET IT! The pick created a lot of holes and people don’t agree on whether it was capable of doing that. Do we really need to spend a fifth of the screenplay on this??”
I was much more interested in the relationship between Joe and Jeff. That’s where you get into the interesting questions, like the moral responsibility of a journalist. How close you should get to the suspect. Whether that’s going to influence your judgement. Is Joe going to get close enough to Jeff that Jeff will tell him what really happened? Should Joe lie to gain Jeff’s trust in order to get the juicier details?
Unfortunately, that relationship never clicked. The big reason for that was Jeff. He was so devoid of depth that it was impossible to get a feel for him. He was always happy. He was always sure he was right. He was a narcissist through and through. And while that may have been who he was in real life, it prevented me from understanding the guy on any level – positive or negative. He was just this dude who was probably guilty being given an unfair trial.
That was my other problem with the script, is that Joe was eventually convinced Jeff was guilty, yet he was horrified by the fact that Jeff was getting an unfair trial. If he knew that Jeff did it, who the hell cares how he’s convicted? Why are you horrified by the fact that the system is rigged against a guy who brutally murdered his wife and children?
In screenwriting, you’re looking for DRAMA. You’re looking for things that conflict, not comply. It would’ve been a lot more interesting if Jeff was innocent but got an unfair trial. Or if he was guilty but his lawyer had rigged the trial to get him off. Now you have conflict. Now your main character has a dilemma. A guy who’s guilty being given an unfair trial isn’t dramatically interesting.
It frustrates me that writers don’t think about drama. Drama is conflict. It’s two things colliding head on. If your story isn’t doing that repeatedly, you’re not maximizing the entertainment value.
Also, I want to put this out there because I’ve seen in A LOT of it lately. It’s okay to make your character an alcoholic, like Joe. But if you do this, you either have to personally know what it’s like to be an addict. Or you have to research it – talk to someone who’s an alcoholic and try to understand what that’s like. Because I have a few alcoholic friends, and being an alcoholic is torture. It’s not having any control over your actions. It’s walking to the store at 1am like a determined zombie who will not deviate until he finds his brains.
When writers just tack on the alcoholism vice to deepen their characters, it’s the worst. Because you can smell the artificiality from a mile away. You know the writer isn’t interested in exploring what that’s really like. They just want to check that box, the one that says “Your characters now contain depth.”
That’d be the advice I’d give to any writer who wants to make a character an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex addict, whatever. You have to have an INTEREST in exploring what that’s really like. Because no number of obligatory shots of your hero pouring a glass of whiskey is going to convince us. We have to see that struggle within them. If you’re not willing to do that, I PROMISE YOU your character will read false on the page and every reader will pick up on it.
What’s most frustrating about this script is that there are pieces of it that work. And the setup is inherently interesting. A writer investigates a guy acquitted of murder and begins to think he did it. There’s plenty you can do with that. But the script is too focused on the details (like sweaters), and not enough on the central relationship. We needed to see this friendship build, see Joe realize Jeff was guilty, Joe get pushed to rip into Jeff by his publisher, and finally Joe’s decision to pull away from the man he’d become close friends with.
We unfortunately didn’t get that. And I believe that’s the key to this movie working.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Just saying something doesn’t make it true (another way to look at “show don’t tell”). Joe keeps saying that the trial is unfair. But we never see it with our own eyes. We HEAR how a few things that could’ve helped Jeff were ruled inadmissible. But there are hundreds of things that are ruled inadmissible in every murder case. It’s par for the course. If you want to convince us of something, you have to show us. You need to write a scene where Jeff is clearly wronged in court. That’s the only way to get a point through to the reader.
Premise: After Peter Parker, aka “Spider-Man,” comes down from the high of fighting with the Avengers, he must figure out how to live life as a normal teenage kid again.
About: When the last Spider-Man actor, Andrew Garfield, pissed off Sony brass by ignoring some of his business duties, the studio decided to nix a third film and reboot the series. Of course, it wasn’t a tough decision. Both The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel underwhelmed audiences. Sony then took a gamble on Jon Watts, whose tiny film, “Cop Car” proved Watts’ ability to pull believable performances out of young actors. The gamble paid off as Spider-Man pulled in 117 million dollars this weekend, 20 more than everyone expected. Maybe the biggest surprise of them all, however, was who wrote the script – Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The team is known for underwhelming flicks such as Vacation and Burt Wonderstone. Well, their stock just went way up. They’re going to be at the top of everyone’s tentpole list moving forward.
Writers: Jonathan Goldsten & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (as you can see, a ton of writers are credited. But Goldstein and Daley seem to be the ones hitting the promotional circuit so I’m guessing they had the most influence on the script)
Details: 133 minutes
A lot of people (and by a lot of people I mean me) have been asking the question – Why is it that THIS Spider-Man did so much better than the last reboot? For those who have forgotten, The Amazing Spider-Man cleared barely 60 million at the bank in its first weekend. And its successor made 90 million. So how did this Spider-Man make 115 million?
The answer is two-fold, and the first part is that Sony put more stock in its relationship with emerging stars Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield than they did finding the best cast possible. Garfield and Stone were moving up the Sony ranks, starring in a lot of the studio’s films, and in order to keep them around, they said, “Hey, here’s Spider-Man,” despite the fact that Andrew Garfield was the worst choice for the webslinger possible. Well, maybe better than Channing Tatum. But not by much.
By bringing in a fresh face for Spider-Man: Homecoming, it conveyed to the ticket buyers, we’re not being lazy anymore. We actually tried on this one. And that matters. Some people don’t think it matters but it does. A new face brings an excitement to the role that comes off in the actor’s performance and his promotional duties. The general public feels that excitement and wants to be a part of it.
The second is that Sony finally stopped being greedy and hogging Spider-Man to themselves, making the unprecedented move to share Spider-Man with the Marvel Cinema Universe. Now as we all know, this decision wasn’t made in a vacuum. Sony was falling apart, the studio bleeding money with bomb after bomb. They had to do SOMETHING to shake things up, and by lending Spider-Man to Disney, they essentially created a giant commercial for their own franchise. Also, it doesn’t hurt your popularity when you’re all of a sudden seen with all the cool kids.
But what about the movie, you say?
Peter Parker has just got back from that kick-ass ass-kicking of the Avengers at that European airport and he WANTS TO DO MORE! But Tony Stark tells him, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Which means poor little Peter Parker has to go back to school and be a normal kid.
Peter and fellow nerd, Ned, skip parties in lieu of putting together 4000-piece lego sets of the Death Star, dreaming of the day ladies start noticing they exist. Luckily, Peter’s female situation isn’t hopeless. He’s got a mega-crush on his debate team teammate, Liz. And even though she’s like, so popular ohmygod, she throws a bit of flirt down whenever they chat.
Meanwhile, Peter spends his evenings fighting crime in the Tony Stark-enhanced spider-suit he got for being an Avenger (complete with a talking female voice). And it’s during these late night escapades where he runs into… the Vulture! The Vulture is a contractor named Adrian Toomes who got a brief job on the Stark Building cleanup, allowing him to secure some alien scraps.
He then used those scraps to build an underground weapons business and, oh yeah, a cool ass suit that lets him fly around and scrap more effectively. Vulture sees Spider-Man as a minor nuisance, too green of a super-hero to truly upset his business. But Peter Parker is nothing if not determined. He’ll ditch homecoming AND his crush if it means saving New York City from scum like this guy.
A lot of people think big-budget screenwriting is about cool shit. Neat set-pieces. Sick weapons. End-of-the-universe stakes. That’s not where screenwriters make their money. Screenwriters make their money on their story and character choices. And there’s a huge one in Spiderman: Homecoming that displays this in full glory.
(spoiler) In the third act, Peter goes to pick up his date, Liz, for Homecoming. And guess who answers the door? Adrian Loomes. Vulture. It turns out that all this time, Adrian was Liz’s dad. At this point, Peter knows who Adrian is, as he’s seen him without his mask on. But Adrian hasn’t seen Spider-Man with his mask off yet.
What we get next is the best 10 minutes of the movie. And guess what? There are no “neat set-pieces.” There isn’t a single “sick weapon.” The fate of the universe is not at stake. We have Peter in Adrian’s kitchen as he waits for Liz to get ready, and the two just talking. Long-time Scriptshadow readers know this as dramatic irony, an extremely powerful storytelling tool.
Then Adrian drives the two to Homecoming. This scene plays out a little differently from the last because Liz is in the car now. So there are three people instead of two, upping the subtext to a new level (is Liz going to pick up on what’s going on?). Adrian is sure he recognizes Peter’s voice, but he can’t figure out where from. So the whole car ride is driven by the question: Will Adrian figure out Peter is Spider-Man?
The reason I say “This is screenwriting” is because we’re engaged purely by the characters and the situation. Nobody gets to hide behind cool suits that spit out spider-drones. But what’s really great is the twist that started this whole sequence. It was a twist THAT WAS PERSONAL. The girl he’s infatuated with is the daughter of the man he’s trying to kill! That’s so much better than, say, if Adrian turned out to be the Mayor. That twist wouldn’t be personal at all. It’s just a twist for a twist’s sake.
Speaking of the Vulture, I was trying to figure out why he was working so much better than the recent stretch of villains I’ve seen onscreen. At first I thought it was Michael Keaton. But after awhile I became convinced it was in the writing. It was an interview with director Jon Watts that cleared it up for me.
He said when he thought about this villain – the vulture – he asked, “What do vultures do?” They scavenge. So he got this idea that the Vulture would scavenge these bits and pieces of technology from the leftover battles of the Marvel Universe. How awesome is that? That you would use the essence of a character to determine how he becomes what he is? Writers don’t do this anymore. They don’t think about their villains. They just make them assholes who abuse their superpowers.
The movie wasn’t perfect though. They could’ve come up with more inventive set pieces. I mean, didn’t Batman retire the whole ferry boat thing from the set-piece idea book? And they didn’t spend enough time in high school. I can’t believe I’m saying that. But the high school angle was the one area that felt unique to a super-hero movie, and we really only spend a few minutes in science class there, one scene at the gym, and that’s it. They probably could’ve done away with one of the action sequences so we could spend 10 more minutes in school and strengthened the love story while they were at it.
But Spider-Man: Homecoming does more right than it does wrong, and is a lot better than the last iteration of the franchise by a web-slinging mile.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: When you write in a twist, you get bonus points if it has personal stakes attached to it. The twist here of Vulture being Liz’s dad works well because it affects Peter personally. A garden variety twist (The Vulture is Tony Stark’s step-brother!) would not have achieved that. A twist should never only work for 1 second (the moment of the surprise). It should have lasting implications that affect your character for many scenes to come.
How crazy is this? We just had an AOW winner with a revenge-obsessed young girl. What’s the first script on this week’s list? A revenge-obsessed young girl! I actually wasn’t going to include the script for that reason. But it’s written by Nick Morris. And we all know he’s one of the best writers on Scriptshadow. Still, this is a reminder that we need to push ourselves with our concepts. If we’ve thought of it, somebody else has probably written it. So what’s that idea you know nobody’s thought of yet? Let’s see that one.
Another unsolicited tip since I’ve been seeing a lot of it in the submissions: Stop telling us this is your first script! Or telling us this was your first script and you’re dusting it off with another rewrite. First scripts are always bad. There’s been like three good first scripts in the history of movies. As soon as someone says this was, in any way, their first script, I know not to post it. Come on guys. Sell yourselves!
For those of you new to these parts, here’s how Amateur Offerings works: Read as many of this weekend’s scripts as you can and vote for your favorite in the comments section. Winner gets a review next Friday.
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.
Title: THERE WAS A LITTLE GIRL
Logline: After witnessing the murder of her daddy, nine-year-old Becky and her dog set out to teach the scumbags responsible that Hell hath no fury like a pissed-off little girl with nothing to lose.
Why You Should Read: It’s my belief that somewhere deep within the human psyche there exists a zone of intense fury that, thankfully for most of us, will never manifest itself. A level of rage that can only be triggered by a morally reprehensible and personal transgression – like the murder of a loved one. That’s the core idea that kept insisting I write this script. And the most compelling perspective I could think of to explore that idea from was that of a young kid. So I knew going in that it could be polarizing and striking the right tone would be tricky. But I’m very pleased with how it’s come together and would really love to hear the thoughts of the ScriptShadow community. Thanks for looking!
Logline: An ex-con kidnaps his estranged transgender daughter in a last ditch attempt to provide the male influence he was never around to.
Why You Should Read: I have a transgender sister and have always found her difficult relationship with my father to be an intriguing dynamic. Especially because she’s very feminine and he’s the kind of unrelenting asshole who goes out and looks for trouble like he was built in a lab by fascist robots. I’ve been writing off and on for almost ten years, have had some pretty big actors and agencies request my work on strong word of mouth over the duration, but unfortunately nothing has ever quite come together. I’m not sure why my heart seems to always get suplexed down the final straight of negotiation but it seems to be either just bad timing market-wise, or the benevolent influence of the league of shadows. After all, as we know; those guys are everywhere. Anyway, I believe that this is the best thing I’ve ever written. Plus I just accurately used a semi-colon. Believe in me!
Title: Adolf H.
Genre: Alternative History
Logline: A fictional version of what could have happened if Adolf Hitler (as a young and aspiring painter) had been accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
Who are you and why should I read this: I’ve been trying to write this script for a very long time. It’s one of my most serious efforts at creating something different. I know the subject might put some people off. But I believe it’s a very interesting “What if?” I’m in dire need for some feedback!
Title: Battle God
Logline: In 2050, an illegal dark web video game lets unmodified humans fight for cybernetic upgrades inside shooter, racing, survival horror, and SIMS mini games.
Why You Should Read: Congratulations! You have been invited to play Battle God. Battle God is an open-source video game where controllers navigate unmodified human players through mini-levels to win cybernetic upgrades. Win a spot at Blue Genesis, today! New round starts in 02:00:00. If you back out at any time, you will be killed. Do you wish to play? Yes/No.
Title: A Decent Man
Logline: Michael’s perfect life is turned on its head when he discovers that his loving wife is trying to kill him. Still in love with her, he tries to uncover why. What he finds on his journey is a truth that changes everything.
Why You Should Read: This is a deeply moving, character driven story about the bonds of friendship and the redemption of a lost man. With a tightly structured plot, three dimensional characters, witty dialogue, more twists than an average drama should afford, and a heck of a third act; A Decent Man delivers an emotional experience that’s brought almost all who have read it to tears. As a bonus, its been optioned by an award-winning director. Thank you for your consideration.
Premise (from writer): A young girl joins forces with her womanizing, alcoholic father who abandoned her years before, and a group of escaped slaves, to track down the confederate soldiers who murdered her family.
About: This western won first place in the Script Pipeline contest last year. Matt at SPL said my latest (and much improved) draft was the best western he’s read in 10 years. Then he went on to say the only thing holding it back is that it’s a western. Well, shit! The producer of Bone Tomahawk, who is also producing a new movie with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, said he really enjoyed it and asked if it was still available. So I have my first meeting today (Tuesday June 6th). By the time it’s up for AOW (if I make the cut) I should have an update. So while I love the script and the characters, and while I also feel it’s strong overall, I know it’s not perfect and a work in progress. That’s where Carson and you lovely people come in… and with your help I know I can make it stronger than it is, give eyes to the weaknesses that I may have overlooked. Stuff to cut, stuff to expand, stuff to improve, etc. I also want to test the waters and see how people as a whole feel, react, and respond to the story and the characters. Hopefully this sees Saturday for voting and Friday for reviewing. I also promise to be part of the converation, which a lot of these AOW writers don’t seem to do. Thanks for reading and giving it a shot!
Writer: Rick McGovern
Details: 116 pages
We’ve got a wacky weekend in front of us. I can feel it.
For us movie geeks, we have a plethora of options eager to steal our bitcoins. If you’re an unabashed super-hero lover, the latest reboot of Spider-Man is out. I’m curious about this installment, but mainly because the director of Cop Car is directing.
We’ve also got that cool weird ghost movie hitting arthouses, A Ghost Story. That comes from the director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. If $15 and a car ride is too much for you, you can check out a similar film in Personal Shopper on Itunes, the Kristin Stewart film that took over Cannes. I’ve seen this film and it’s… interesting. The oddest thing about it is that midway through it turns into a texting thriller.
If you want to pay nothing and get REALLY weird, you can check out Okja on Netflix, directed by the guy who did Snowpiercer and The Host. Finally, if you’re not in the mood to Netflix and chill, I’ve got a fifth option for you. Read today’s script. Because you know what? It’s pretty damn good.
It’s 1862, West Virginia, summer, and 12 year-old Lucy is chasing down a wounded Confederate soldier. When she finally catches up to him, she shoots him the face. Welcome to Bury Your Dead.
Lucy walks back over a hill and into her house, where we see her two dead parents. We start to put the pieces together. Confederate Soldiers came here, killed her family for sport, and left. But not her whole family. Lucy releases a trap door revealing a secret room where her little brother Steven is hiding.
Lucy then heads outside, where 14 year-old Confederate soldier, Devin, is tied up. Lucy makes Devin tell her everything he knows about the men who killed her parents. She then grabs both boys, throws them on some horses, and trots into town.
The first person she finds is Jimmy, her father. Well, her biological father that is. Jimmy left them a long time ago and hasn’t so much as sent a Christmas card. She wants Jimmy to look after Steven while she goes and gets her revenge.
Jimmy, a first-class drunk, tries to talk her out of this madness, but eventually gets pulled into her journey, along with Steven, and along with Jimmy’s current wife, Gertie, who hates his guts for fucking every prostitute this side of the Mississippi River.
The odd bunch travels across the plains until they run into a trio of recently freed slaves led by a giant of a man named Isaiah. Isaiah agrees to join the group, making for maybe the weirdest revenge party in cinema history.
Along the way, Lucy tries to focus on her revenge plan despite the fact that she’s still pissed off that Jimmy left her. Jimmy tells her he’s going to make up for it by taking her to some men who can send these Confederate killers to hell. However, when they finally get there, it’s revealed that the “men” are Jimmy’s brother, and his whole promise was a trick. He wants his brother to raise Lucy and Steven.
Furious, Lucy heads back out to complete her revenge, and, as fate would have it, runs into the killers. Will Lucy close the loop? Or has she learned enough along this journey to forgive them?
I knew immediately that this script was going to be good. You know that old saying, “You can tell a good writer by their first scene?” Yeah, that applies here. We start in media res, not only with a shocking action – a 12 year old girl violently killing a soldier – which alone would’ve been enough to rock our world. But there’s also a mystery involved. What’s going on here? How did we get to this point?
Watching Lucy go back and clean up the aftermath of her parents’ death, and being able to put the pieces together ourselves about what happened – that’s so much more interesting than had we watched this scene unfold linearly, from the moment the soldiers arrived. Why? Because we’ve seen that scene before. But we haven’t seen it told like this. That’s what told me I was dealing with a much better writer than your average Joe.
The script is also one giant testament to character development, specifically the art of the backstory. EVERYBODY had a backstory here. Everyone had a past and a reason for what they were doing. We even get a backstory for a dog! And it’s one of the better backstories in the script!
To give you an example, when we show up to Jimmy’s brother place, the brother is in a wheelchair. Half his face is burned. We find out his wife died in that burning incident. And that the woman he’s with now is who nursed him back to health. This context adds so much more texture to each character, providing that elusive “3rd dimenension” that producers and agents keep telling you your script is missing. Rick nailed that part of the screenplay.
Now some of you might be saying, “But Carson. Doesn’t backstory slow the script down?” It does. Whenever someone talks about the past, we’re telling and not showing. And a lot of telling can get boring. But backstory can work despite its propensity to slow down the script in the same way that a great quarterback can get away with throwing off his back foot. When you’re a good writer, you know how to make it work.
For example, a good writer knows that after a really intense action scene, the audience actually wants a moment to recover. And that’s the perfect time to slip in a backstory monologue. A good writer also knows that backstories are only interesting if they’re unique and specific. And almost all the backstories here are. Had Rick busted out the old, “My dad used to beat me with a belt every night,” backstory, that goes right through one reader ear and out the other. Almost every story is creepily specific.
The dialogue here is also on point. Nearly every line is approached to sound a little different from what we’re used to. When Jimmy yells at Lucy for being reckless, Isaiah doesn’t come back with, “He has a point, Lucy!” which is what 95% of writers would’ve written. He comes back with, “He ain’t exactly fibbin’ on that point, Lucy.” It’s dialogue like that that elevates a script.
In addition to that, I loved the quirkiness of this group. I loved that there were all these strange links between the characters. I liked that there was lots of conflict, and that none of it was forced. Lucy’s problems with her father felt organic. Jimmy’s wife’s problems with Jimmy were realistic. The script might have benefited from a character who was a little more negative or dangerous. But, for the most part, I liked the group dynamic.
If I had to nitpick on anything, I’d push back on Isaiah. Of all the characters, he was the only one who approached cliche. And the scene where Lucy whips Isaiah was the only scene that felt forced in the script. I didn’t buy it.
But I like how Rick concluded the story. I like how he didn’t wuss out, which I think a lot of writers would’ve. This kind of writing shows real talent. And I hope something comes of it for Rick.
Screenplay Link: Bury Your Dead
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Whatever the obvious conclusion is to a scene, try to add one extra unexpected beat. My favorite scene in the script is when our crew comes upon a woman drowning in a carriage while crossing a river. They work together to save her, which would’ve been a nice scene on its own. But then once they look inside, there are two men with her, both pointing rifles at them. This extra beat turns a decent “save the drowning person” scene into something unexpected.
This is one of the toughest questions screenwriters face. You spend 6-12 months writing a screenplay. You send it out to a few close friends, maybe a couple of industry contacts, and the initial feedback isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. One thing is clear though. Your script isn’t the runaway hit you thought it was. No worries. You take that feedback, do some rewriting, address the major concerns, come back, send it out to those people again (if they agree to read it that is) and the response is… still a bit tepid. “Yeaaahhhh. This is a littttlllle better. But I don’t know. There’s something missing.”
All of a sudden, a terrifying prospect hits you. You may have just wasted an entire year of your life on a screenplay that nobody wants a part of. Do you ditch the script and move on to the next one? Or do you put in yet another rewrite in the hopes that you can elevate the script to the potential you know it has?
Before I help you answer that question, I want to say that making this choice is an imperfect process. A lot of it is based on feel. And I’ll give you a prime example of that. There was a script I reviewed a couple of weeks ago called “Final Journey.” You may remember it as the “Eskimo Hand Job” script.
I would later learn that the writer had written that script a decade ago. It placed well in some contests but nothing came of it so he moved on, writing a dozen other scripts over the years. Then he decided to dust the script off and enter it into a few contests. At Page, the script tapped out in the third round, but one of the judges was a respected manager who absolutely loved it. That love led to a signing, the manager blasting the script around town, and the script subsequently making the Black List.
The point is, all script success stories funnel back to an early champion, someone with notoriety who can bring attention to the script. And you never know who that person is going to be. However, there are ways if to gauge if your script is good enough to find a champion. The last person you want to be is the guy parading the same script around town year after year, insisting that its genius hasn’t been recognized yet.
So, here are some tips you can use to gauge whether you should keep pushing your script out there or move on to the next one.
Is this one of your first three scripts? – I’m not going to say it’s impossible to write a great script in your first three tries. But it’s hard. Those first three scripts are somewhat of an education period for screenwriters that help them become familiar with screenwriting’s unique format. This is not the determining factor in whether to move on or not. But it is a factor. If there’s little interest in your script despite a lot of reads and it happens to be one of your first three scripts? Consider moving on.
Have you done everything in your power to get your script out there? – I’ll never forget this one newbie writer who spent three years writing a fantasy script, then afterwards, sent it to the five industry contacts he’d accumulated in that time (all of them friends-of-friends-of-friends), and when all five of them came back with, “No thank you,” he packed up, said that Hollywood was a town run strictly by nepotism, and moved back home. I mean, come on! You have to understand that this is a town addicted to the word, “No.” Steven Spielberg gets told no. JJ Abrams gets told no. As a nobody, you’re going to get a lot of nos. The only way to combat this is to explore every avenue – contests, online services, Scriptshadow, friends of friends in the industry. If you haven’t gotten your script out to at least 10 people (and preferably a lot more), you have no idea if your script is worth continuing to pursue.
Identify honest feedback – Part of figuring out whether to stay in a script relationship or cut ties is gauging feedback. If the feedback’s good, stay. If it isn’t, go. Here’s the problem though. Not all feedback is honest. In fact, most feedback is given with kid’s gloves, so as not to hurt the writer’s feelings. For this reason, whatever a reader’s evaluation is, assume it’s worse. I’ll never forget one of my friends giving me nice polite feedback on a script once and thinking, “Wow! This script isn’t that far off!” Five years later I was out drunk with that same friend, and the script came up. He launched into this randomly angry monologue about how my script was nearly impossible to get through because of how bad it was. He ended with, “I’m so glad you moved on from that thing.” Yikes. I had no idea he hated the script that much. It was a reminder that people don’t want to hurt your feelings. With that in mind, there are a few things to look for during feedback. If feedback (written or oral) is polite, repressed, or apathetic, you’re in trouble. If there’s genuine excitement, an eagerness to recall favorite moments, or the reader wants to know what you’re going to do with the script next, that’s an indication it’s a script worth fighting for. (side note: always consider the source. If you send your comedy spec about a man who sleeps with 100 women in one weekend to a woman who identifies herself as “The Internet’s #1 SJW,” she’s probably going to hate your script no matter what)
How big are the script’s problems? – In trying to figure out if you should rewrite your script yet again, you need to identify how much work is involved. The more work, the more time. The more time, the more you should consider the script a sunken cost and move on. If you’re hearing feedback like, “The entire second act drags,” or, “I don’t understand your main character,” that’s major rewrite territory there. If it’s stuff like, “You need an extra scene to beef up the love story” or “I would combine 5th Most Important Character with 7th Most Important Character,” those changes can be made fairly quickly.
Be honest with yourself – Every script is a like a baby to a screenwriter. It doesn’t matter if he’s the ugliest baby in the city. He’s still YOUR baby. But the difference between an ugly baby and an ugly screenplay is that you don’t have to raise an ugly screenplay. So do me a favor. Step outside of your subjective reality – the 500 hours you’ve spent on the screenplay, the trailer you can’t wait to see in the theater for the first time, that brilliant devastating scene at the end that’s going to have the audience in tears – and look at the objective reality. Are the people reading your script feeling even a fraction of what you’re feeling? One of the biggest reasons writers stick with scripts that don’t deserve to be stuck with is that they’re not honest with themselves. Stop looking at your script through rose-colored glasses.
If this article has helped you realize it’s time to move on from your current screenplay, I have a couple of happy thoughts to leave you with. Every time you write a new screenplay, you become a better writer. So you should be excited about writing something new. Also, no screenplay is ever truly dead, as the Eskimo Handjob script reminds us. Once you sell a script, tons of people are going to want to read whatever else you’ve got. That’s when you bust out your old stash of screenplay gems.