Premise: After learning her dead boyfriend was a secret spy, a supermarket cashier and her weird best friend attempt to finish his last mission.
About: This script just went through a bidding war with Lionsgate surprisingly coming out on top (Lionsgate makes comedies now?). It will star Bad Moms breakout Mila Kunis, along with the uber-polarizing Kate McKinnon, in the team-up. The film will be directed by Susanna Fogel, who created the television show, Chasing Life. The script was written by Fogel and David Iserson, who’s been writing for TV since the early 2000s. He wrote on SNL, New Girl, Mad Men, Mr. Robot, and Mozart in the Jungle.
Writers: Susanna Fogel & David Iserson
Details: 117 pages – First Draft
The comedy genre is in a weird place. Whereas a decade ago, you could count on a comedy being one of the top 5 box office performers of the year (The Hangover), now the top-performing comedies are lucky to finish in the top 20.
Last year, for example, the top comedy films were Central Intelligence (no. 22) and Bad Moms (no. 25). The year before that it was Daddy’s Home (no. 22) and Spy (no. 27). I know, right? A lot of people assumed Spy bombed. Yet it was the second biggest comedy of 2015!
And this is for a lot of reasons. Comedies don’t perform internationally, so studios don’t care about them as much. Spectacle films are becoming a jack-of-all-trades, offering plenty of laughs along with their action. And between the explosion of television and the quick fix that Youtube provides, laughs are easier to come by than ever. You don’t need to block out an entire Friday evening for them anymore.
What does this mean for you, the comedy screenwriter?
Good question. I don’t think the business has course-corrected to this reality yet. It’s business as usual, with the only tweak being a bigger focus on female-centric comedies. We need some fresh thinkers to come along and shake things up, like what Sacha Baron Cohen did when he dropped the Borat bomb on us.
With that said, coming up with a genuinely funny concept is a great place to start. I still think a super-clever premise like The Hangover would do gangbusters business. Is “The Spy Who Dumped Me” in the same clever neighborhood? No. But it’s not bad. Let’s see how it fared.
27 year-old Audrey is pissed off that she’s working at Trader Joe’s three years longer than anyone her age should be working at Trader Joe’s. She wants to get her life started but a recent dumping by her boyfriend, Drew, hasn’t exactly motivated her to kick life’s ass.
Audrey’s weirdo best friend, Morgan, is one of those girls whose parents told her she could be anything she wanted and has parlayed that mindset into pursuing the lucrative market of performance arts.
On her 1 year anniversary of meeting Drew, Audrey is approached by a cute British guy named Sebastian who tells Audrey that Drew is a spy and he needs to know where he is. Audrey doesn’t know, but later that day, Drew shows up to get his stuff, only to be assassinated right in front of Audrey’s eyes. With his dying breath, Drew gives Audrey a jump drive and tells her to deliver it to a guy in Austria or really bad things will happen.
Audrey doesn’t want any more blood on her hands than the blood from her dead boyfriend that’s on her hands, so she recruits Morgan, who’s more than happy to play spy, and the two fly to Austria. But once there, they realize they’re in way over their heads, and a cacophony of John Wick level assassins are quickly on their tail.
They eventually meet up with Sebastian again, who Audrey’s starting to like, and attempt to figure out what the data on the jump drive means. Just when Audrey thinks this whole thing will finally be over, she’s confronted with a shocking revelation that throws everything up in the air.
How long can a jump drive last in someone’s vagina? Can Sebastian be trusted? Why is Morgan so obsessed with uncircumcised penises? Hopefully these questions will be answered soon. Or else our amateur spies will end up professionally dead.
One of the commonalities I’ve found with these big idea professionally scripted comedies is that they’re always impeccably structured. The writers clearly understand plotting and how to keep the story moving in a fun way.
But that also becomes the script’s big weakness. They’re so beholden to getting that structure down that the script ends up winning the Screenwriting 101 Structure Contest, but losing the Funny Competition.
It’s weird because on the flip side you have Judd Apatow. That dude could give two shits about structure. He’d make 4 hour comedies if studios would let him. Yet he’s able to find these occasional gem moments that are really funny, even if you had to sit in the theater way too long to get to them.
So the question becomes, which approach is better?
I think you know the answer. The ideal situation is to do both. You want to keep that plot moving, but not so quickly that it mitigates those all important belly laughs. Because that’s why we’re here. To laugh.
The unique challenge with a movie like The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it’s going to market itself as a comedy but it’s beholden to the rules of an action spy flick. And the number one rule with those is to keep the plot moving very quickly, like a Bourne film. That’s why I expect there aren’t as many laughs here as there need to be (yet). They never slow down to have them.
The only times I’d laugh were throwaway lines or the occasional zinger. In comedy, you need those memorable hilarious set pieces, like opening up the trunk of your car to see a batshit crazy naked Asian man go bananas on you. And while we had set pieces here, they were either too familiar or too plot-driven.
For example, the first goal in Audrey’s mission is to meet a guy at a cafe in Austria. So we have a potentially funny set piece scene here. Audrey can try to play the tough cool-as-ice spy (exactly the opposite of who she is) as she makes the hand-off, while Drew’s contact senses something is way off about this bumbling girl who’s anything but a spy.
But the scene is played more like an action movie. She sits down. She talks to someone. We get the sense that the someone she’s talking to isn’t the right person. And then all hell breaks loose with guns and yelling and running oh my. Likewise, most of the movie’s laughs are derived from “in over her head” moments of guns being fired and Audrey being like “Oh shit!” before barely getting away with her life.
Which is fine. Those scenes make sense in a movie like this. But that can’t be all you depend on. One of the most important rules of writing comedies is meticulously figuring out everything that’s unique about your concept that you can exploit for comedy. That gives you a variety of comedic set pieces to play with so you don’t have to keep going back to the same joke.
For some reason, we don’t do that anymore. The reason that Big is still a classic today is because it did that better than any comedy ever. It exploited its premise in a variety of ways. There weren’t any scenes in that movie that felt the same. Which is the opposite here. Every scene feels the same.
I do want to reiterate that there is skill on display in this script. While it missed the mark for me, it’s still waaaaaay better than the amateur comedies I read. Like way way better. Come to think of it. Comedy is probably where the biggest disparity is between professional and amateurs. It’s so hard to be funny within the confines of the stuffy screenplay rules.
Maybe that’s why when I read a script like The Spy Who Dumped Me, I’m so hard on it. It’s gotten itself to a level that most comedy writers will never get to. And that’s why you’re so upset that it doesn’t offer more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Studios are currently favoring comedies with an action slant since they’re easier to sell globally. I still say write the best comedy concept you can come up with. But if it has an action slant, all the better.
Logline (from writer): A team of Victorian monster hunters must save the universe from their biggest threat yet, themselves.
Why You Should Read (from writer): I’m a Benihana chef, mandolin player and a broke as a joke screenwriter living in LA now for two months shy of a year and I’ve written about 10 screenplays. I’ve got about thirty dollars in my bank account so there’s not much there to submit this screenplay to a formal contest which sucks, but I’m living the dream…which is cool. It would be very helpful if you would review it so I could know if I was heading in the right direction and if my diet of peanut butter jelly sandwiches in front of my computer monitor is paying off.
Writer: Kathryn Whipple
Details: 106 pages
Okay, before we get to the script, let’s talk about this logline. I’ve been reading lots of loglines for the shorts contest and it continues to be a destination of disaster for aspiring writers.
Everything about this logline works until you get to the word, “from.” “…from their biggest threat yet, themselves.” The best way to describe that ending is that it doesn’t clarify what the movie is about. And what did we just talk about yesterday? Making sure the concept is clear!
Now, after reading the script, the logline does, in fact, make sense. But that’s the problem. It only makes sense AFTER you’ve read it. The point of a logline is to tell us what the script is about BEFORE we read it.
In this case, “themselves” refers to our protagonists’ doppelgangers, who travel through a rift and try to kill our heroes. So, we need to clarify that in the logline. Therefore, the logline should look more like this:
A team of Victorian monster hunters must battle a group of doppelgangers who invade our planet on a mission to destroy our universe.
Now, the question is: Is that premise any good? That’s something I’ll answer after the plot summary. But the point is, that’s the real premise you’re working with, so you have to be honest about it and include it in the logline. You can’t be coy.
England. 1850. It’s the Victorian era. Reason to be optimistic. Except for the monsters that keep popping up through inter-dimensional portholes threatening to kill everyone. If only there was someone to combat these monsters.
That’s where our team comes in. There’s the gorgeous Baroness Whitetower, our de facto leader, the monster-fighter on the rise, Victoria, and finally the always serious, Gunner, who doesn’t get rattled no matter how big the monsters get.
These guys can easily take out a 150 foot caterpillar in a couple of hours. But here’s where things get tricky. They don’t want to kill these monsters. They want to send them back where they came from. This requires a complicated method of creating a rift in the space-time continuum and pushing them back through that rift so they can go back to their parallel world of origin.
All of this is going gorgeously until the police arrest the Baroness for all the destruction she’s caused around town (they have no idea what this destruction was in service to, of course). That’s followed by a new rift opening and – get this – the EVIL REPLICA versions of our monster killing crew arriving.
These folks aren’t nearly as friendly, and inform us that they’re here to destroy our universe because if they don’t, the universes will start collapsing in on each other.
The doppelgängers bring with them many rifts from many different universes, all spewing about fresh monsters of every conceivable disposition, making our crew’s mission of taking out their doubles all the harder. Will they do it? Or is our universe doomed for collapse?
So this is what I was getting at earlier. On the one hand, you have a team of Victorian monster hunters hunting monsters. That’s pretty cool, right? However, halfway into Rift, that isn’t what our script is about. It’s now about a group of evil doppelgängers using the rift-system to travel to parallel universes and extinguish them.
That’s not a bad idea. But it’s not really what we were promised, was it? You could argue that our doppelgängers do open up rifts from which new monsters do arrive and must be fought off. But, ya see, by adding the doppelgänger element, you’re essentially doubling up your concept. You now have two concepts competing for the same movie…
Concept 1: Victorian monster hunters taking on monsters.
Concept 2: Space-time continuum protectors who must fight their parallel universe doubles.
The reader’s like, “Wait, which movie am I watching here?”
Luckily, the solution to this is rather simple. Drop the doppelgänger element. You can still have someone come through the rift and threaten our group, but make him a normal villain, not a double. That way the focus can be squarely on the monster element, which is the bigger sell here.
As for the script itself, I thought the execution was okay, if a little scattered. In the attempt to add character depth, we lost sight of prize. Case in point, when Whitetower gets back from the opening monster battle, she’s greeted with a 16 year-old nephew she didn’t know she had.
This nephew, Everett, is hers through her dead sister’s husband, Cal, a man we just met moments ago once we arrived home, who also seems surprised to learn he has a nephew.
I don’t know about you, but why would I care about the nephew of the main character’s brother’s dead wife, a man who wasn’t even important enough to be on the opening monster killing mission? It was an odd character to spend so much time working into the story.
Speaking of, there wasn’t that one character who stood out. That wasn’t through lack of trying, but I almost felt like more of a “hero’s journey” approach was needed here, where you bring in a “chosen one.”
Instead of having Victoria be a well-established member of the crew, why not make HER the “Everett” of the bunch. Whitetower and their crew get home after the opening battle and Victoria, reimagined as a nervous 18 year-old, is waiting on the doorstep. And instead of making her someone’s cousins’s brother’s half-sibling’s son, make it simple: she’s Whitetower’s daughter.
She’s then taught the ropes and becomes an integral part of taking down the Rift-jumping evil villain. That’d be how I’d approach it, anyway.
Finally, I thought the second act was too short. I consider the beginning of the third act to be the opening up of all the rifts with all the monsters needing to be fought off, and that comes at the midpoint of the script, giving us 55 pages of battle. That’s too long.
The better approach would’ve been to have a single rift open up at the midpoint with a rather nasty monster that they’ve never seen before needing to be killed, and then the threat of multiple rifts opening later on, which would happen at the end of the second act, leaving the entire third act to be our “one giant battle.”
The big takeaway here, though, is that this concept’s strength is its monsters, not its doppelgängers. So that’s where I’d focus the story if I were Kathryn.
Screenplay link: Rift
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Unnecessarily complicated familial ties having major story implications is always a lose-lose. If you’re going to bring a major character into the story, try to make the familial connection as straight-forward as possible. A son. A daughter. No half-nephews or twice-removed uncles. I suppose if Cal was the main character here, Everett would make more sense. But Cal is some afterthought who wasn’t even on the original mission. So he feels as peripheral as peripheral gets.
If you’re anything like me, you need the occasional break from the Hollywood tentpoles, the Oscar hopefuls, the thrillers and the chillers, the biopic caterpillars. Ya just want to laugh sometimes, man! So ya go over to the comedy section of your digital rental service and try to find something that either looks good or has an actor in it you like. Then you press the magical download button and hope for the best.
While going through this process last week, I came across a comedy called “Why Him.” You may have heard of it. It’s a movie that stars Breaking Bad vet Brian Cranston along with James Franco. In it, a father flies with his family to California to meet the man who wants to marry his daughter.
Now, when I originally saw this trailer, I said, “That movie isn’t going to work.” And I knew exactly why it wasn’t going to work. But three months later when the bar is lower and the picks are slimmer, you start movie gambling. I looked up the writer and director of the film and was surprised to see that it was written by the same writer of one of my all-time favorite comedies, “Meet the Parents.”
So I thought, “Huh. I have to give this a shot now.” And I gave it a shot. And it turned out to not only be bad, but embarrassing. However, I already knew this would be the case when I originally saw the trailer. And chances are, so did you. Which is why you didn’t waste your hard-earned money like I stupidly did.
But why, specifically, was this movie doomed before it was written?
It was doomed because it had a faulty concept.
I’m going to get technical here, so stay with me. But the reason the concept was faulty was because it didn’t have clarity of conflict.
Clarity of conflict – When the conflict at the center of the movie’s concept isn’t clear to the viewer.
That may sound like screenwriting mumbo-jumbo, but it’s imperative that every movie you write have clarity of conflict. If you don’t get this one thing down, your movie is doomed. And I’m going to show you why.
But first, I need to teach you what conceptual conflict is. When you come up with an idea, you must also come up with the main conflict within that idea. Let’s say I pitched you a movie. “It’s about a funny irreverent superhero who’s this crazy dude and he says all these crazy things when he’s doing stuff. It’s insane.” You’d (hopefully) look at me and say, “Annnnd?” The reason you’d say that is because I never told you what the central conflict was in the movie.
Had I instead said, “It’s about a funny irreverent superhero who vows revenge on the super villain who tortured and maimed him for a decade,” you’d better understand the movie because I gave you the central source of conflict. Without a central source of conflict, a movie isn’t a movie. It’s an idea.
The next step is making sure that this conflict is clear. If the audience isn’t clear on what the conflict is or how it works, it’s like being thrown into a sport where you don’t know the rules. You have no idea where to stand. You have no idea where you’re going or why you’re going there. You’re not even sure what the point of the game is (I imagine this is what it’s like to play Cricket).
The reason Meet the Parents is one of the most popular comedies of all time is that it has one of the clearest conflicts of any comedy ever. A young man must win over the tough-as-nails father of the girl he wants to marry. You understand what’s going on INSTANTLY. You could explain that concept to anyone walking down the street and within five seconds they’d get it.
That’s because the clarity of conflict is so strong.
I understand the “Why Him” pitch in theory. I could see it going down in a boardroom like this: “What if we did Meet the Parents… but in reverse? So it’s actually the father who goes to meet the potential son-in-law.” Okay, on the surface, it’s not terrible. Every father’s nightmare is their daughter marrying a deadbeat loser. There might be a movie here.
BUT THAT’S NOT THE MOVIE THEY MADE.
Here’s what they did instead. They made the daughter, Stephanie, fall in love with a guy who was a bit of a douche, but WORTH 100 MILLION DOLLARS.
Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because now, it’s not clear what we’re supposed to think. I’d understand being upset if Stephanie was going to marry some drug-dealing deadbeat living in his mother’s basement. But she’s marrying a man who’s incredibly rich and successful who she’s head-over-heels for. As an audience member, I’m thinking, “Wait, why is that a bad thing?”
Due to our confusion, we figure there must be something wrong with Laird. He must be a bad guy. But it turns out he’s a really good guy, further muddying the conflict waters. The movie poster is telling me I’m not supposed to like this boyfriend, but my logical mind is saying he’s fine. In fact, this is probably the ideal guy you’d want your daughter to marry.
Now you might be saying, “Okay, Carson. You’ve proven they did some nerdy inside baseball screenwriting thing wrong. Who cares?” YOU SHOULD CARE. Because the conflict at the heart of your concept dictates EVERYTHING that comes after it. Every scene between Laird and the dad will carry an undercurrent of, “Wait, what am I supposed to be feeling right now?” because what the movie is telling me I’m supposed to be thinking isn’t matching up with what I’m actually seeing! And if that’s what I’m concentrating on, I’m not laughing.
If you watch the original Meet the Parents, you’ll see that every joke is built off of that central conflict. When Greg loses the cat, it’s not some goofy, “Zoinks! I lost the cat!” scene played for zoinksy cat laughs. That cat is Jack (the father’s) most prized possession in the entire world. If Greg doesn’t find that cat before Jack comes back – a man who already hates him – he’s fucked! He loses the woman he wants to marry!
In Why Him, since jokes centering around the central conflict don’t work, the writers start bringing in jokes that have nothing to do with the concept. For example, a character is brought in who’s half-butler, half-ninja, whose job it is to… well, let’s be honest. He’s there to act wacky and do a lot of off-the-wall shit because the producers realized nothing else about the comedy was working.
This is why clarity of conflict is so important, guys. Everything else falls apart if we don’t understand what the central conflict in the story is.
In Arrival, the central source of conflict is communication.
In The Martian, the central source of conflict is long-term survival.
In The Revenant, the central source of conflict is revenge.
In Trainwreck, the central source of conflict is the main character sabotaging herself.
In Flight, the central source of conflict is addiction.
There will be lots of little minor conflicts along the journey in every movie. And the more complex your movie is, the more of those you’ll have. But you must have a dominant central conflict driving your story and it must be CLEAR. For example, Braveheart is a really complex movie that covers a lot of time, involves multiple women our hero falls in love with, contains a lot of political maneuvering, as well as lots of battles. But the central conflict is the English. That’s what the movie always keeps coming back to – securing freedom from the English.
So I beg of you, please, get your central conflict in order. Make sure it’s clear. When you have that clarity, that’s when someone hearing your pitch or seeing your trailer just “gets it.” They immediately understand what the movie is about. Hopefully this brings your concepts to life. Good luck!
Premise: A steamboat captain is recruited by a British ivory company stationed in Northern Africa to find one of its men who’s lost in the jungle.
About: Best known for tricking radio listeners into thinking the earth was under attack by aliens from Mars, and for creating the “best film ever made” in Citizen Kane, Orson Welles is also known as the poster child for lost opportunity. His choice to make a movie about one of the most famous newspaper magnates ever to live (Randolph Hearst) during a time when newspapers were so powerful, they shaped our very reality, Hearst, who knew every bigwig in Hollywood, demanded Welles not be able to make any more movies. And that’s pretty much what happened, with Welles only trickling out a handful of films during his career. Heart of Darkness was a casualty of this blackballing, and a movie Hearst desperately wanted to make.
Writer: Orson Welles (based on the novel by Joseph Conrad)
Details: 185 pages
In one of the most famous movies never made, Orson Welles had plans to be the first filmmaker ever to shoot an entire movie from the main character’s POV. While this is merely an artistic choice today, back then, with the weight of the cameras and how difficult it was to set up even a basic still shot, the process for filming a 2 and a half hour POV movie would’ve been an almost impossible undertaking, which is at least partly why this movie never got made.
It should be no surprise that Welles wanted to tell this story. The dude is dark. He routinely spat out quotes like this one during his life: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” Holy barnacles, batman. Someone please check the going rate on nooses on Amazon.
Heart of Darkness starts out, rather amusingly, with Orson Welles staring at us while we’re lodged inside a bird cage. He then tells us, the audience, that in this film, we’ll be seeing the movie through the main character’s eyes. He then shoots us, killing the bird version of ourselves, to show us just how powerful this device will be.
Then, even more amusingly, as if he didn’t think that would be enough to convey just how outrageous this first person approach will be, he places us in the shoes of a prisoner, then walks us to an electric chair and executes us. If we hadn’t understood the device that would be guiding us through the movie before, we did now.
That leads us to Marlow, our main character, who also happens to be us. We’ll be experiencing the movie through Marlow’s eyes. Marlow is an American steamboat captain who’s been tasked to go to Northern Africa to find a missing member of “The Company,” that being an ivory trading company based out of Britain.
The missing person is the mysterious Kurtz, who’s so elusive we’re not even sure what he does. Kurtz is located deep in the jungle, up one of thousands of river tributaries, at a remote station where he’s pulling in more ivory than the rest of the company combined. But Kurtz hasn’t written the company in awhile, and people are getting worried.
So Marlow, or “us,” team up with Kurtz’s beautiful and flirty fiancé, Elsa, to find this man that nobody can stop talking about. The further inward they go, the clearer it is that this place is hell on earth, a breeding ground for disease and death. The few who somehow escape these scenarios, often end up crazy. That, they fear, is what’s happened to Kurtz, and if we don’t find him soon, what may happen to us.
Welles wrote this script when he was 25 years old, and it feels like it. Those early 20s scripts are always the most ambitious as you want to change the world and redefine the medium. You’ll throw in any and every weirdness you can just to stand out. Who cares if it serves the story. As long as it gets people talking!!
With that said, if there’s anyone who’s capable of getting away with that, it’s Orson Welles. Every choice he made in Citizen Kane, someone told him he couldn’t do it and he did it regardless. Greatness is never born out of someone saying, “I want to do this exactly the same way everyone else has done it.” So there’s something to be said for Welles’ gung-ho attitude here. And, in his defense, the subject matter warrants taking chances.
But the first person perspective, while cool in theory, presents several storytelling problems. And the mistakes made from scripts like this one, as well as its cohorts that eventually made it to the screen, only to quickly be forgotten, are likely what inspired the first generation of screenwriting professors to say, “Maybe doing it this way doesn’t work.”
What’s one of the first things they teach you in Screenwriting School? The main character needs to be active. Why does the main character need to be active? Because active characters drive stories and because audiences like people who DO things as opposed to people who REACT to things.
And that’s pretty much all Marlow does, is react. In fact, the entire movie consists of him watching OTHER PEOPLE do things. True, he is the captain, so he is taking our characters to Kurtz. But there’s never a situation where Marlow is like, “We need to go that way!” And he runs to the steamboat room and starts pouring on more coal before running out and pulling a rare Fast And Furious’esque figure-8 steamboat move to barely make it into the Katonka River.
It’s more like, someone will come up to him and say, “Hey, how you feeling?” And Marlow will say, “All right. I wonder what the weather is like back home.” There are a lot of interactions like that, giving us a character dominated by a whole lot of inactivity.
It’s not a total bust though. Heart of Darkness conveys just how popular build-up can be. If you build something up enough, the audience WILL stick around until that thing arrives. I don’t think I’ve ever heard one thing (the name “Kurtz”) mentioned so many damn times in a single script.
Every other word out of someone’s freaking mouth was “Kurtz,” to the point where even though I was bored to tears because nothing else was freaking going on, I wanted to find this Kurtz fellow! I mean, with so many people talking about him, he had to be worth the wait, right?
What I also found interesting was that despite this novel being written over 100 years ago, that even back THEN they were still using love triangles. I say that because you think of a love triangle as a cheap literary device used to stir up some artificial conflict. But the magnetic and flirtatious Elsa working her magic on Marlow while her fiance, Kurtz, draws closer every minute, was of the more dramatically compelling storylines in the script!
The weird thing, though, is that the very thing I found gimmicky at first – Welles’s cheesy masturbatory opening sequences – was exactly what I craved more of as we made it past the century page mark. The script gets so bogged down in its dark subject matter and relentless attention to camera detail (seriously, the word “CAMERA” was easily used over 600 times in this script), that there wasn’t any fun left. Add on a protagonist who just watches everyone else do things without doing anything himself and you can see why something like this would get boring quickly.
The only thing to keep our interest was that damn Kurtz. But because, at a certain point, that’s all the story had to offer, even I had to dive into the water and swim back to shore. This would’ve been an interesting experiment had it ever been produced, but very likely a failed one. That’s exactly what the studio head said to Welles at the time. And do you know what Welles came back with? “No problem. I have another idea. It’s called Citizen Kane.”
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You are not as clever as you think you are. When you think that you’re rewriting the cinematic language by talking directly to the reader or going first person POV for an entire script? Know that there was a script written as far back as SEVENTY SEVEN YEARS AGO that was doing the same thing. When it comes to screenwriting, choose the most compelling story you can write over writing something gimmicky with tons of bells and whistles. If Orson Welles couldn’t pull it off, you probably can’t either.
Genre: Dark Drama
Premise: When a young girl named Allison Adams goes missing, four other women named Allison Adams find themselves at first peripherally, and then directly, pulled into the mysterious disappearance.
About: Allison Adams made this past year’s Black List, was written by actor Devon Graye, and is really fucked up. Now, you may ask how anyone could write something so fucked up. Seems like a good time to throw this nugget at you: Graye played Teenage Dexter on the serial killer show, Dexter, for a year. I’m guessing much of what he was exposed to there inspired this screenplay.
Writer: Devon Graye
Details: 92 pages
If there’s an argument to be made against structure and screenwriting convention, “Allison Adams” is a script you’d file as evidence in the trial. It throws the conventional whodunnit out the window, adds some Fargo’esque wallpaper to the living room, then dives into the basement where guys like Thomas Harris, David Fincher, and Patrick Bateman are playing poker.
Before we even get to the script, I want to hammer this point home. I read a lot of “missing girls” screenplays. Heck, there’s a whole cottage industry of missing girls novels. It is one of the most oft-used setups in fiction. And it works because there’s nothing that triggers readers like a helpless girl being taken.
Now you’d think that the average writer would know, when there’s concept competition, you have to bring originality to the table or nobody’s going to give a shit about your script. The default setup for this concept = small town, girl goes missing, meet all the suspects.
And yet, most of what I read in this genre is right off the assembly line. While they all have their slight variations that the writers will tell you is what makes them “fresh takes,” the truth is they’re all the same.
Allison Adams is not only NOT an assembly line script. It was crafted in some 1970s Russian basement by a guy named Lukslava.
In a small town, a young girl named Allison Adams goes out to ride her bike and never makes it home. As the town comes together to try and find her, we meet several women, all of whom, strangely, are named Allison Adams.
Nurse Allison has a 5 year-old son who she’s struggling to take care of due to the immense stress of her job. 16 year-old Cheerleader Allison is preparing to lose her virginity to her dream boy, Michael. However, she secretly has a thing for a 40 year-old neighbor who she could swear flirts with her whenever they talk.
Next up is Diner Allison, whose been saving up to buy a boat and sail around the world when she turns 50, which is later this year. And finally there’s 68 year-old Hermit Allison, who stays within the confines of her house as she has a rare condition that makes it impossible to make choices.
The script bounces around to the four Allisons, who at first seem to have nothing to do with the disappearance. But then a creepy thin man straight out of a Stephen King novel starts showing up in their lives. He starts with Nurse Allison, arriving at her hospital with a bottle of orange liquid he claims is his blood-soaked urine. But when Nurse Allison goes to get the doctor, the creepy-as-F dude disappears.
Eventually, the Thin Man starts killing off the Allisons, and it’s a race from the understaffed local police force to stop them from taking each Allison down. But why is there this obsession with getting rid of Allisons in the first place? The answer lies in the fact that each Allison is way more complex than we know.
Reads like this usually go in a predictable pattern for me. At first, I love them. They start out so damn mysterious, like when you pour yourself a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and somehow a cocoa puff makes it in there. There are all these unanswered questions. And the creepy weirdness makes every page feel like the possibilities for the story are endless.
Then once the script hits the second act, the writer realizes the narrative needs to go somewhere, and the script struggles to keep its weirdness while introducing logic into the mix. Once the script hits the final act, and the writer has to actually wrap things up, everything falls apart as it’s exposed that the writer never had a plan in the first place. They wrote themselves into a corner of mysteries and bet on black they could write their way out. 99% time, they don’t make it out, dying an elongated death of screenwriting starvation, the last words typed on their screen a combination of an idea for a scene in the third act that involves a wheelchair, and half their grocery list.
So Allison Adams should be commended for being a member of the 1%. I’m not going to get into how Graye did this, as that would unleash massive Spoiloria. But we’ll just say this: He did it.
To those who like weirdness and hate Hollywood structure, Allison Adams is a reminder that you can be weird as long as you have a plan. Do not start writing a weird story with no idea where you’re going. I guarantee you, your script will be a mess. You don’t have to know your ending exactly. But you should have a good approximation of it.
How do I know Devon planned this whole story out ahead of time? Cause there were about 30 payoffs in the third act. That’s the easiest way to figure out if the writer had a plan. If they’re paying off things that happened on page 20, page 34, page 51, you know they had a plan all along. And the script is always better for it.
Writers who don’t have a plan overcompensate with the third act, injecting all this crazy wild stuff in the hopes that it will distract the reader from the fact that you ended up here just as cluelessly as they did. Crazy wild over-the-top stuff = made it up. Tons of payoffs = planned.
The script is not perfect, although these weird scripts rarely are. That’s the beauty of them. The big weakness is the character of Diner Allison. Whereas all the other Allisons had something weird going on, Diner Allison was just a good old girl with a dream.
If you’re going to go the non-traditional route of following multiple protagonists, that’s fine. But don’t just have multiple protagonists to have them. Make sure each of them merit their inclusion.
Because often what a writer will do is they’ll get this story point set in their head. In this case: “I’m going to have four Allisons.” And even though, five months down the road, one of those Allisons isn’t working, they’ve always been so set on having four Allisons that they’d rather keep the thing that’s not working than move off their original idea. You guys know what I’m talking about and you know what you have to do when this situation arises (if not, see “what I learned” below).
But other than that, this was a weird suspenseful ride that reminded me you can play with generic setups as long as you find a truly different way to explore them.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: KILL. YOUR. BABIES. OR. MAKE. THEM. ADULTS. No matter how much you love the idea of something in your script – a plot point, a scene, a character – If it’s not working, you have to kill it. Or, if you don’t want to kill it, you have to try something else to save it. Diner Allison is the weak link in this script. She either needed to be dropped or reimagined into something as interesting as the other characters. Making these choices is never easy. But if you ignore them, your script suffers for it.