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A big new juicy sci-fi spec about gravity-loss just sold a couple of weeks ago. I’ll try to keep my feet firmly on the ground as I review it.
Premise: A gravitational anomaly has sucked four-fifths of the world’s population into the atmosphere. A small team of scientists must travel across San Francisco during the phenomena to find the cure before it’s too late.
About: Visionary filmmaker, Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Kingsman), is taking a rare step into NON-IP fare. That’s right. A major Hollywood filmmaker is directing a SPEC SCREENPLAY. This should give your little screenplay typing fingers some goosebumps cause it means that the SPEC IS BACK, BABY! Okay, maybe I’m hyperbolizing. But it’s still pretty cool. Screenwriter Shannon Triplett sold the script to Fox for mid-six against seven figures. While he worked in some small assistant capacity on Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, and has done some special effects for movies such as “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” this is his first breakthrough on the screenwriting front. Triplett looks to have used some of those effects skills to market his script, including some concept art, which you can find in the screenplay.
Writer: Shannon Triplett
Details: 115 pages
I know a lot of you screenwriting purists hate the idea of concept art in screenplays, but the way I look at it is that there are so many reasons to say no to a project – Like the fact that this movie will cost 120 million dollars and isn’t based on any IP – you need ways to turn the head-shake into the head-nod. One way is to actually show them imagery from your movie.
Now it’s gotta be professional. And I’m going to make a sweeping statement here that’ll be harsh but hopefully save you from embarrassment in the future. Unless you get paid as an artist, DO NOT try to create your imagery yourself. Even if it’s pretty decent, it will look 19 levels worse than the concept art the average studio exec is used to looking at. So it’s just not a good idea. Trust me. I know you’re talented. But you’re not as good as the guy who does it 9 hours a day 360 days a year.
If you’re going to include concept art, you’re going to have to pay some money to get professional work done. Paying money to write a script may sound counterintuitive. But what you have to remember is it’s an investment. You’re investing in something that IMPROVES your chances of selling your script.
It’s up to you whether you think the investment is worth the potential payoff, but if you’re writing some grand scale summer flick that’s never been done before, it might be helpful for the reader to see a visual example of what you’re going for. Who knows? The right image – something that perfectly encapsulates your movie – might be the thing that tips the script-sale-needle in your favor.
Liam West is a theoretical physicist. And no, I don’t know what that is either. But under these circumstances, that title is really important. You see, after two months of global gravity fluctuation, everything starts shooting up into the sky at once.
Liam is able to get to a military bunker with his wife and kids, but his wife isn’t able to make it inside, and is left out in the unpredictable elements of gravity-less San Francisco. Now that is not a San Francisco treat.
After a couple of months, Liam, a group of scientists, and a group of soldiers, decide to trek across San Francisco to Stanford, where an old colleague of Liam’s may be finishing up a cure for the gravity issue.
The group has to use spiked-shoes and mountain-climbing poles to stay attached to the earth, lest they float into the sky like a bundle of birthday balloons. As you might guess, this absurdly imperfect approach (I thought these guys were scientists!) results in a new phenomena known as “Scientists go bye-bye into sky-sky.”
Liam decides, mid-trek, that he wants to see if his wife is still earthbound. So the group detours, only to get attacked by a gravity surviving militia. They somehow escape these gravity bullies, and eventually make it to Stanford. But barely anything there still works, and Liam’s friend only has one risky experiment left to try. If that doesn’t pan out, everyone’s going to be spending their next vacation dodging 747s.
This is how you sell a script if you’re a beginner to intermediate screenwriter. You can tell Triplett is still learning the ropes here. Not enough big shit happens. There isn’t enough urgency. And while there are attempts to create character depth, those attempts are scattered and unfocused. I never had a sense of who Liam was or what his flaw was as a human being. This was even more evident with the supporting characters.
Okay, you say, Carson, so if I’m working my ass off for an entire year to give each of my characters emotionally captivating character arcs, why does his script sell and mine is sucking up viruses on my hard drive?
Quite simply, it’s the concept. This is a big idea concept that gives audiences something they’ve never seen before. And that’s a valuable commodity in the movie business because you just don’t see that kind of opportunity often when you’re buying screenplays.
A way to look at it is like this. Let’s say you’re a basketball GM. And you need to figure out who you’re drafting next. It’s come down to two guys. The first guy is 5’10”, scores 23 points a game, shoots 90% from the free-throw line, and is superb at dishing the ball. The second guy is 6’8”, scores 8 points a game, shoots 60% from the line, and is able to jump out of the gym when he dunks. Who do you choose?
It seems easy. The first guy is a much better all-around player, right? Okay, so what’s the hold-up? I’ll take the first guy. Ehhh, except there’s one problem. The other guy is 6’8”. And 90% of the time, the GM is going to pick the 6’8” guy because even though he’s not as good as 5’10” guy, he has a much higher ceiling. Hollywood sees screenplays the same way. Ascension is not as good as an amateur script I read just last week about a used-car salesman. But Ascension is 6’8”. It has way more upside.
And you have to remember: Hollywood can always hire somebody to beef up the character stuff. This is actually the number one reason you see a script sell for so much money and then a new writer gets hired. That always used to seem ridiculous to me (“You just paid all this money! Now you want to change it??”). But after reading all these script sales over the years, I’d think studios were crazy NOT to do this.
This is why guys like Scott Frank and Allan Loeb and Brian Helgeland make so much money. Because they’re the only ones who truly know how to go in there and add depth to the characters (which is why I told you last week that if you want to break into this business, learn character!).
Which brings us back to Ascension as a script. Was it any good? You know, it was all right. But it was also frustrating. I didn’t get the sense that Triplett really researched what this phenomena would be like. It seems like the planet had months to prepare before the actual gravity-strike hit. So why didn’t they fortify the underground city structures to house the general populace?
Why is it that the best travelling arrangement five of the smartest scientists in the world could come up with was wearing spiked boots? There was a lot of stuff that felt like it was thrown onto the page without much thought (another common thread with young screenwriters – they rarely challenge themselves to go deeper). After watching how far The Martian went to make sure all of its science was spot on, Ascension was stumbling around like it was wearing beer-goggles.
I also felt that not nearly enough obstacles were thrown at our characters. The worst they had to deal with was a steep cliff and a tiny local militia. We just talked about this the other day. If you want to get the most drama out of your idea, you need to hit your hero with “Holy shit how are they going to get out of this?” type obstacles. Not a few stray bullets from people who have never shot a gun before.
So yeah, I had some problems with the script. But I understand why it was purchased. Triplett made the wise decision to enter the draft with the 6’8” guy as opposed the 5’10” one. How tall is your concept?
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Become an internet troll to make your script better! Internet trolls care about one thing and one thing only: tearing things down. While that can suck on the internet, it can actually be helpful when you’re writing a screenplay. After you’ve finished your script, put your internet troll hat on, and go through your screenplay with a troll’s mentality. The idea here is tear your script apart. You do this because the screenwriter side of you is too afraid to face the script’s problems. He’d rather live in ignorant bliss. Internet troll you? He’s relentless! And we need relentless. After the troll’s done, you’ll be able to fix all those weak nonsensical things you were ignoring. Had Triplett used his inner troll, he would’ve spotted a few curious problemos with Ascension.
1) Why aren’t there a lot more people still alive? It seems like all you’d have to do is stay in your home. When you needed to go out, you just wear spike-shoes like the scientists did.
2) If the world knew this was going to happen months ahead of time, why wasn’t a better infrastructure put in place to keep society going?
3) Why is all communication down? Again, they knew this was coming.
4) Why can’t people just live underground? Especially in San Francisco, which has a huge underground metro system.
One of the HARDEST things to do in Hollywood is be consistently good. There are so many factors working against making a good movie that very few people in the business are able to do it consistently. It’s why the writer-director of The Sixth Sense can also make The Happening. It’s why the director of American Beauty can also make Jarhead. It’s why the writer-director of the great Jerry Maguire can also give us… Aloha??
Think about all the things that can go wrong. The budget can be slashed in half at the last second. An actor can show up on set and demand a page 1 rewrite of his part. The director can drop out the day before the movie starts. The financing can come in suddenly, forcing you to start your movie before the script is ready. Your romantic leads who had great chemistry in rehearsals, can sleep together and, all of a sudden, the spark is gone. When you think about all of the things that are out of your control in filmmaking, it’s amazing that any good movies get made at all.
Which is why the people who do it consistently deserve attention. There’s a reason why these filmmakers are so obsessively coveted by the studios. Because they’re the only ones you can actually count on. So today, I’m going to give you five of the most consistently successful people in the business, and detail what they’re doing right that you can learn from. Let’s begin with the king of them all… Mr. Spielberg!
Movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T., the upcoming Ready Player One
Spielberg is the best in the business at recognizing the big idea. But here’s the reason he’s so consistently successful with those big ideas while his imposters consistently fail. Spielberg adds a childlike sense of wonder to his stories, a simplicity of observation that makes them immensely accessible to both kids and adults. You see this even when he doesn’t have a child in the lead role. Spielberg still asks the question, “What kind of cool stuff would a child want to see here?” This formula for success shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s the same formula Pixar uses. Childlike wonder done with a level of sophistication. It’s such a simple approach, you wonder why others can’t replicate it. The reason is that everyone who tries to add that childlike sense of wonder goes too far into juvenile territory (fart jokes, “stepping in doo-doo” jokes – a big reason why The Phantom Menace failed). That turns off the majority of adult audiences, slashing the potential box office in half. The recent “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a good example of this approach in action. The childlike sense of wonder is replaced with a juvenile sense of pandering. It’s impossible for an adult to enjoy that movie, leaving the film successful, but a far cry from “Spielberg successful.”
Movies: Titanic, Aliens, The Terminator, The Abyss, Avatar
Whereas Spielberg appeals to the child in all of us, Cameron appeals to the teenager in all of us. He ramps up the Spielberg “big idea” approach and adds a new ingredient: “attitude.” As much as I love Spielberg, he’ll never direct an action sequence as cool as the LA aquaduct chase in Terminator 2. Speaking of that scene, Cameron is one of the few directors who thrives on pushing the envelope. If you watch most Hollywood movies, it’s directors copying whatever the latest big movie did (remember how many movies did “bullet time” after The Matrix?). Cameron asks himself, “What can I do that’s never been done before?” Just by asking that question, you open your story up to amazing possibilities. A lesser known key to Cameron’s success is his “on-the-nose” approach. Cameron is not afraid to spell it out for audiences (Sarah Conner’s drawn out voice-overs detailing our inevitable demise as a species in Terminator 2, for instance). But while this may annoy frequent cinephiles bored with conventional film, the casual moviegoers who need a little more clarity in their cinematic cereal love it. Here’s the interesting thing though. Film snobs hate every other on-the-nose filmmaker outside of Cameron. How does he manage to escape their wrath? Because there’s no other filmmaker more obsessed with detail than Cameron. The guy fucking spent years inventing alien plant life for his fake world in Avatar. Geeks LOVE that shit. Because details matter. Consider the hack who recently took over the latest Terminator movie. In that film, a key scene from the first movie is recreated. Except the director decided to CHANGE one of the character’s hairstyles (he had a blue Mohawk in the original – not in the new one)!!! It’s this casual attitude towards details that leads to so many forgettable films.
Movies: The Game, The Social Network, Fight Club, Benjamin Button, Gone Girl
Just like Cameron, Fincher is OBSESSED with details. Except whereas Cameron is obsessed with his worlds and his props and his gadgets, Fincher is obsessed with everything in the frame, from the lighting to the set decoration to the camera angle to the positioning of the actors to the placement of that whiskey bottle on the back mantle that nobody in the audience is ever going to notice. When you watch a David Fincher movie, you’re watching a film from a man who CARES. And that’s not always the case with movies. In addition to this, Fincher has an amazing ability to identify dark populist material. He is, in many ways, the R-Rated Spielberg. One thing that’s separated Fincher as of late is his interest in structurally challenging stories. From Fight Club to Zodiac to Benjamin Button to Gone Girl, these are movies that don’t have that safe straight-forward Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 setup. While I believe you need to learn to tell simple stories first (which is exactly what Fincher did, with movies like Panic Room and The Game), once you have that understanding of traditional structure down, scaring yourself and taking on non-traditional narratives is a great way to stand out.
Movies: Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained
Tarantino is probably the hardest screenwriter/director to learn from because his style and voice are so unique, if you try to do what he does, you end up looking like a not-as-good version of Quentin Tarantino. With that said, there are a couple of things we can take away from the man. More than any other writer in the business, Tarantino creates strong fascinating memorable characters. Almost every one of his characters is unique in some way, is larger-than-life in some way, and is fun to watch on the screen. In so many scripts I read, writers put little effort into creating characters that stand out. I get the feeling whenever Tarantino sits down to write a character, he asks himself, “How can I make this character memorable?” And he goes from there. A lot of people assume the key to Tarantino’s success is his dialogue. But that’s not true. The reason his dialogue is so good is because he makes his characters so interesting in the first place. If you write interesting characters, they’re going to say interesting things. Which means the dialogue writes itself. This is also why Tarantino can stay in scenes for so long. It’s because of the work he did long before those scenes were written (creating unique interesting characters). So if you want to be like Tarantino, don’t try and write “cool,” or “weird” stuff. Ask yourself for each one of your main characters: “How can I make this character interesting and memorable?” Do this and everything else will fall into place.
Movies: Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, Interstellar
Nolan doesn’t yet have the pedigree that the rest of the entrants on this list have, but he’s done all right for himself. And there’s one thing Nolan does better than anyone I’ve mentioned so far. He’s not afraid to make you think. Nolan sees the theater as an opportunity to not just entertain an audience, but to challenge them. And unlike a lot of other filmmakers – like David Lynch, like Darren Aronofsky – who likewise enjoy challenging audiences, Nolan is the only one who likes to do so in big high-concept packages. The formula almost seems too obvious. Big ideas that make you think. Why didn’t I think of that? Another thing that Nolan does well is he takes a realistic approach to all of his big ideas. He’s like the anti-Michael Bay in that sense. Whereas other blockbusters (Independence Day, 2012) feel hokey in their approach to physics and logic, leaving the story feeling schlocky and cartoonish, this “realism above all else” approach gives Nolan’s films an additional layer of depth. As crazy as some of the ideas are (dream heists?) you get the feeling that if they were introduced into the real world? This is how they would go down.
My big takeaway from these five titans? Come up with a big concept. Treat it with a childlike sense of wonder or realistic plausibility, whichever you think will work better for your particular idea. Challenge yourself to create larger-than-life memorable characters. Push yourself into narrative areas that make you a little afraid. And above all, pay attention to the details. Now go write that million dollar spec!
Note: FOUR MONTHS LEFT UNTIL THE SCRIPTSHADOW 250 DEADLINE!!!
So over the past few weeks, I’ve had some discussions with writers gearing up to write their next screenplay. Some of these were new writers with only a few screenplays under their belt. Others have been trying to break in for 10+ years. The discussions universally gravitated towards, what’s wrong? Why haven’t my screenplays sold or gotten me an agent, or even gotten my best friend to read them?
95% of the time it comes down to that the concept isn’t any good. And the fascinating thing I’ve found over time is that the writer actually knows this. They’ll actually say to me, “I know that the concept isn’t very good but this isn’t about the concept. This is about the characters and their journey they go through and blah blah blah…”
Hold up, hold up, wait a minute, hold on.
What did you just say?
Did you really just say you knew the concept wasn’t any good? And you still wrote the script?? Believe it or not, this answer is so pervasive in the amateur writing ranks, that I don’t know why it still surprises me. The only explanation I can come up with for why they do it is that they believe they’re different in some way. That they’re special. And the rules don’t apply to them.
Unfortunately, that’s not how this business works. This business IS a concept-driven business. Not only because the script has no chance of getting made unless the concept is good. But because Hollywood is a numbers game. Everyone says no to everything – EVEN GOOD CONCEPTS. A yes only comes along every once in awhile. Therefore, you have to spread the widest net and get the most reads in order to get that yes. If you have a lame (or boring, or uninspired) concept, you’re not going to get the number of reads necessary for the odds to pay off. A good concept gets 50, 100, 200 times the number of reads a boring concept does. Imagine how much better your chances are of breaking in with those kinds of odds.
So how can we ensure we have a good concept? Aren’t those hard to come up with? I mean, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right? Well, before we get to how to write a good concept, let’s start with how to avoid writing a bad one.
A new phrase I want you to add to your screenwriting vocabulary is: “The Potential of Boring.” If your idea sounds like it has the potential to be boring, don’t write it. This is not to be confused with the script itself. The script (or the movie) may in fact be the greatest movie ever. But if it SOUNDS like it has the potential to be boring, don’t write it. Because, chances are, nobody’s going to read it. One of my favorite movies of the last two years is Philomena. I loved it. I would never, in a million years, however, allow an amateur writer to write that spec. Why? Because it’s about an old woman who goes searching for her son. The average person hears that and they think, “That has a strong potential to be boring.” Ideas that sound like they have the potential to be boring will not get read.
Another good way to know if you’ve got a boring concept is to play the elevator game. Pretend you’re stuck in an elevator with a Hollywood producer and he asks you to pitch your movie. Go, do it right now. Pitch your movie to Imaginary Producer in Elevator Guy. It should become clear very quickly whether you have a good concept on your hands. If you’re sitting there going, “… and she goes on this road trip of self-discovery and meets this guy. And he’s a drug-addict and then she remembers that what really brought her happiness was her poetry so she starts writing poetry, going from town to town, performing on the street…” That script’s not going to get read. “A young family excited to start their life together finds the perfect home, only for the college’s biggest fraternity to move in next door.” That’s going to get you a read.
As far as how to come up with a good concept, there isn’t any one way. There are clever ideas (like Neighbors, which I just noted), there are ironic ideas (like The King’s Speech, about a man who can’t speak who must give the most important speech in history), but if you’re still stuck trying to find that big idea, start by thinking “LARGER THAN LIFE.” Focus on a scenario that’s bigger than what happens in your everyday life. Going to pick up groceries then coming home to have a fight with your wife isn’t a movie idea. Going to pick up groceries, coming home to find your wife spread out on the floor dead, and the cops think you did it so you have to go on the run. That’s a movie idea. But I’m going to take this one step further. The larger than life your idea is, the more likely it is that it’s a movie idea. The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, The Hobbit, Transformers, Maleficent, X-Men, Big Hero 6. These ideas take place in different worlds, different universes in some cases. They’re larger than everything.
Let’s see how this can be applied to a basic idea. Say you want to write a movie about sex. So you write about normal people obsessed with sex. The movie is called Nymphomaniac. It makes 10 dollars at the box office. Why? Because there’s no “larger than life” angle to it. In comes Fifty Shades of Grey, currently the highest grossing movie of the year. Let’s now make one of the characters a billionaire. How many billionaires do you know in your everyday life? I’m guessing none. This aspect gives it a “larger than life” feel.
That might not be the best example, you can always skew the numbers in your favor when making these arguments, and there will always be exceptions to the rule. But I’m telling you. By and far, over the last 30 years of this business, this is the formula that wins out for writers trying to break into the industry.
Now there’s one writer I was talking to in particular who had been writing for about seven years. He was a good writer too, and he was frustrated that he still hadn’t broken in. I pointed out to him that none of his scripts really satisfied the “larger than life” criteria. There were a few you could argue were close. But like I said, the MORE larger than life it is, the better your chances are. And he tended to keep his stories more grounded, more based in reality. Which is exactly what he said to me. “But Carson, what if I just don’t like to write those kinds of movies?”
And I realized that some people just want to write about real human conflict, real human drama, without all the hoopla of a flashy concept. They’re more interested in reality. To these people I would start off by saying, “Understand that by taking that stance, you’re making your chances of success infinitely harder.” Once you’ve accepted that, we can go to the next piece of advice. And the next piece of advice would be this: “Stop bullshitting yourself.” It is completely possible to write a human drama wrapped inside a big concept. I’ll give you an example.
A couple of years ago, a writer broke through with one of the hottest scripts in town. It was called “Maggie,” and it was about a young girl who was turning into a zombie. Except in this take on the mythology, it took six months to turn into a zombie. I thought the script was okay, but that’s not the point. The writer was a genius. He wanted to write a story about cancer. But if he wrote a story about cancer, he knew no one would read it (keep in mind, this was before Fault in our Stars). So he placed the allegory inside of a marketable genre that made the story more high-concept. He told it as a zombie tale. And just like that, the concept is larger than life.
You can explore the human condition inside of ANY idea. So don’t fool yourself into thinking you have to write about a small town family who struggles to make ends meet after the dad loses his job in order to explore people. There was a script on the Black List a couple of years ago that did a wonderful job exploring a family amidst an alien invasion. Guess which one of those scripts is getting read? And they’re both doing the same thing – exploring the human condition. It’s just that one writer was smarter – he gave his story a wrapper that would make people interested. Hopefully, you can learn from him.
Premise: An ex-Death Row worker who has since isolated himself from the world finds his life reinvigorated by the arrival of a beautiful teenage girl.
About: A lot of people chastise the Black List for celebrating scripts that already have production deals or writers who already have established careers. But baby scribe Anthony Ragnone truly is an “out of nowhere” find. Outside of some assistant work, he was just your average amateur writer trying to get noticed. He did so with “Huntsville,” which finished around the middle of the pack on the 2014 Black List. (Note: Due to some reveals in the screenplay, I would suggest you find and read this script before reading the review. A lot of people should have the script to pass around since it was on the Black List)
Writer: Anthony Ragnone II
Details: 92 pages
If I heard that a band of eager young screenwriters were heading to Los Angeles and would be here tomorrow, and the city commissioner gave me one billboard to put up at the entrance of the city, in which I could offer any message I wanted to said screenwriters to give them the best chance at success, I know exactly what that billboard would say:
SIMPLIFY YOUR SCREENPLAY!
One of the most common mistakes I see new writers make – and it only seems to be getting worse – is biting off more than they can chew. An extremely complicated plotline following multiple protagonists with flashbacks and flashforwards where every third character’s motivations are shrouded in mystery… It certainly sounds fun from an eager young writer’s point of view. But the amount of skill required to pull something like this off is higher than you could possibly know.
And I know that sucks to hear because when you’re a young writer, you want to break the rules. You want to show why you’re different. So you conjure up some part-Charlie Kaufman, part-Aaron Sorkin, part-Scorsese screenplay that is simply too complicated to wrangle into any sort of enjoyable shape.
The scripts that I see which continue to sell or make an impression on the industry are often simple stories with a slight complication or two. If you look at the latest Black List, Catherine the Great (the number one script) is a very simple story following a woman who rises to power. The only complication is that it doesn’t take place in one continuous timeline. My favorite script on the Black List so far, The Founder, is even simpler. An ambitious man tries to create a fast food empire. There are no bells and whistles. Just the necessary conflict he endures while trying to achieve his goal.
The Brian Duffield script, The Babysitter, which finished 3rd on the list, follows a kid with a crazy baby sitter. The Wall, which finished sixth on the list, is about a one-on-one battle between two snipers. Achingly simple. The first script on the list that I would categorize as “complex” would be “Mena,” which uses an overly complicated 40 page montage before it gets into its core story. Not surprisingly, I think it’s the weakest of the scripts mentioned. Reading it was a struggle.
This brings us to today’s Black List script, which is, yet again, a simple story. It’s about a 40 year old man, Hank, who lives a boring isolated life. His job is to watch the local high school parking lot so that aspiring Ferris Buellers don’t try to play hooky. For fun, he occasionally goes fishing at a local lake. Other than that, he takes care of his turtles, and enjoys a drink or two.
Everything would’ve continued on this way had Josie not arrived. A smoking hot punky 17 year old, Josie isn’t who she seems at first. She’s actually thoughtful, sweet, and cool. She pushes Hank to open up, get out of his comfort zone, and actually go out and have fun. Within a few days, the two are practically best friends.
And that’s when Marcus gets involved. Marcus is one of those kids who would ditch school every day if it wasn’t for Hank sitting in that parking lot busting him every time he sneaks out of school. Marcus hates Hank, and that makes things very awkward when Marcus starts dating Josie.
Josie jumps back and forth between spending time with the two, and you get the sense that something here is going to break. It’s just a question of who snaps first. Of course, if that’s all there was to the story, there wouldn’t much to talk about. There’s something in Hank’s past that he doesn’t like to talk about, and it may be the thing that undoes them all.
Once again, we’ve got a super simple story here. A friendship between two unlikely people that’s thrown into disarray by a dangerous third party. The reason that simple stories are so effective is because it’s easy for the reader to understand what’s going on. And that’s a powerful tool as a writer. Once someone thinks they know what’s going on, you can mess with them. You can throw unexpected twists and turns at the story. You can build suspense. You can foreshadow standoffs between characters.
When everything is shrouded in mystery and hiding behind fifteen cross-cutting storylines or time jumps, the most effective storytelling tools become unavailable to you. It’s hard to be suspenseful if we’re not even sure who’s who or what’s what.
Huntsville uses a very simple device to keep our interest, and that’s an impending sense of doom. You usually only hear about this device in relation to horror scripts. But it can be used in any genre, and if you’re writing a slow-burn story, it’s pretty much a necessity. The impending sense of doom here is Marcus. He’s our bad guy who doesn’t like Hank. And the closer Hank gets to Josie, a girl he’s falling for, the more we get the sense that, at some point, Marcus is going to get rid of Hank.
Another reason I think writers are scared to keep things simple is because they equate simple with boring. To these writers, I’d say shift your complexities away from plot and into character. If you can create at least one complex character, readers will keep reading if only to try and figure them out.
What makes Hank such a good character are all these hints at his dark past. Every once in awhile, Hank will see a man sitting in his apartment, long gray oily beard in an orange jumpsuit, just staring at him. Part of the reason we keep reading is we want to know who this man is and how he relates to Hank.
But also, we want to know how far Hank will go. He knows he can’t and shouldn’t be with this girl. It’s illegal. And yet, this is the only person in the last ten years who’s reached out to him, who’s shown him that there’s still joy in life. I’ve said this before but whenever you have a character who’s fighting something within themselves, you, at the very least, have a watchable character.
(Spoilers) I’ll finish this off by saying I did NOT see this ending coming at all. It takes a lot to fool me since I’ve seen every trick in the book. But Ragnone got me good. No doubt, the ending is what got this script on the Black List. And I’ll go so far as to say it never would’ve worked had the rest of the story not been so simple.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s a difference between a simple story and a simple concept. A simple story is just telling a story in a simple way, and is often preferred. A simple concept is another thing entirely. As much as I liked this script, I’m not sure I’d advise other writers to write a concept this simplistic (older guy meets younger girl and becomes friends with her). Unless you find an agent who sends it to everyone in town and it gets on the Black List, scripts like this more often fall through the cracks. I’d advise a high concept or a genre approach if you’re trying to get noticed as an unknown writer.
Genre: TV Pilot – 1 hour Comedy
Premise: When the Devil gets bored with the goings-on of Hell, he decides to pack up, head to Los Angeles, and open a bar. What he never expected was to start caring about the people in the city.
About: Born in New York, Tom Kapinos moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1990s, got a job as a reader at CAA, and parlayed that into a script sale that got Jennifer Aniston attached. The movie was never made, but the spec was read by the Dawson’s Creek folks, where Kapinos soon became one of the writers. After the show was over, Kapinos fell into the Tinsletown Purgatory but five years later emerged with the hit show, Californication, on Showtime. Kapinos has now, smartly, jumped onto the comic book bandwagon, taking the DC character, Lucifer, and turning it into a TV show which will debut on Fox, probably as a companion to Gotham.
Writer: Tom Kapinos
Details: 55 pages
Okay, so I’ve just started Season 3 of House of Cards, and I’m worried. For those planning on watching the show in the future, avert your eyes, I’m about to get into spoilers. Basically, when you have a particular goal driving a TV show, the show will encounter a crossroads when the protagonist achieves that goal. Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) goal has always been to become president. That’s why we watched for the first two seasons – to see if he could do it. Now that he’s done it, where does the story go?
Now there are a million new story challenges you can create for the president of the United States. But no matter what you do, it’s hard to recapture the excitement of the underdog trying to become the top dog. I’m worried that the show will start focusing on plot (We must improve our relations with Russia!) as opposed to character, which is what makes all TV shows, and this one in particular, so good. Whatever the case, I’m eager to see how they solve this problem. It could lead to either some really good or some really bad screenwriting. I’m sure those who have already seen Season 3 will offer up their thoughts in the comments. I only ask that they do so without spoilers.
How does this tie into today’s pilot? Well, Frank Underwood is a morally corrupt individual. He will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. It’s become apparent to me that these types of characters are great for TV shows. Someone who’s a little bad is so much more entertaining than someone who’s pure good. And today, we have a character who’s probably about as bad as they get. The devil himself. Let’s take a look at Fox’s upcoming show… Lucifer.
When we meet Lucifer Morningstar, he’s been chilling in LA for a good year, running his hot nightclub, Lux, and basically doing whatever naughty thoughts come into his head. The reason Lucifer has so much fun is that he’s devoid of that part of the body that actually cares about things – what is it called again? – oh yeah, the heart.
That’s about to change, though. One of Lucifer’s pet projects has been Delilah, a talented musician who debuted at his club and who has since become one of the biggest musicians in the world. However, like a lot of musicians, she makes terrible dating mistakes, and on this particular night at Lux, one of those mistakes drives by the club and guns her down.
What starts as anger eventually becomes sadness in Lucifer – a feeling he’s totally unfamiliar with. It bothers him enough that he insists on joining local hot but uptight cop, Chloe, on her investigation into the murder. Chloe doesn’t like the candid and sexist Lucifer, but she’s amazed by his Jedi-like power to get anybody to tell him what he wants to know.
The two go from Record Company owners to rap stars to movie stars as they trace Delilah’s sordid relationship past, before finally discovering that the wife of one of Delilah’s lovers got her bodyguard to do the hit. It’s a satisfying conclusion for Lucifer, who can now go back to his debauchery-laden ways. Except there’s one problem. He actually finds himself caring for this Chloe woman. Humph. Why does the real world have to be so complicated??
Let’s start off today talking about Investigation Simplicity Syndrome. 50% of the TV shows out there revolve around some kind of procedural format. Characters go on an investigation, usually to find a murderer. It’s a tried and true format where the goal and stakes are built right there into the genre.
But Investigation Simplicity Syndrome can destroy a procedural. This occurs when the investigation is too simplistic. Here Lucifer and Chloe go to a record producer, who says he didn’t do it and offers, “It was probably that rapper.” They go to the rapper, who says, “It was probably that movie star.” They go the movie star and, after talking to his wife, realize she was the one who did it.
It was so basic as to seem purposefully boring. Now when you’re writing a comedy series, which Lucifer basically is, you get a little more leeway in this area. If people are laughing, they’re not demanding Fargo-like complexity in their plot. But you have to put a LITTLE effort into the investigation.
Another problem with Lucifer is Lucifer’s key power – his ability to get people to tell him the truth. It makes things too easy! Characters throw the answers at him without any effort on his part: “Oh yeah, you should go check out that guy. He’s suspicious.” With any movie or show, you want to make things DIFFICULT on your characters – not simple – because then your characters have to struggle, and characters who struggle are always more fun to watch than characters who are handed everything.
So the combination of Investigation Simplicity Syndrome and Lucifer being handed all the information without having to work for it made for an incredibly boring investigation.
Which means I probably hated Lucifer, right? Not exactly. What Lucifer lacks in plotting it makes up for in fun. Lucifer is a funny character, throwing out punchlines faster than Mayweather throws punches (when an Angel visits his club: “Amenadude! How’s it hanging, big guy? Didn’t you see the sign?” “No angels allowed?” No? Hmm, maybe we should be using a bigger font.”)
And let’s not forget the wish-fulfillment, one of the more underrated components of character creation. We all wish we could do bad things and not have to suffer the consequences for them. That’s what’s so fun about watching Lucifer. He’s bad and he doesn’t give a shit.
That alone wouldn’t have been enough though. Kapinos smartly realizes that every good TV character needs somewhere to go. If there’s nothing they’re struggling with, then they’re basically a robot. So what’s hinted at, here, is Lucifer’s growing introduction to feelings – something he never had to deal with down in Hell. Once a character must deal with consequences, their choices become a lot more difficult, and we sense that’s going to be Lucifer’s journey as a character.
The script also benefits from Protagonist Dramatic Irony. This is when we know something about the character that nobody in the story does. This typically works best with serial killer protagonist flicks (American Psycho), but here, it’s simply that Lucifer is the devil. Therefore, whenever someone challenges Lucifer, or gets in his face, or gives him trouble, our superior knowledge allows us to delight in what’s about to follow. This happens several times in the script, such as when Scrip9 (the rapper) tries to intimidate Lucifer, only to end up on the floor crying like a baby when the conversation is over.
So what Lucifer lacks in plot, it makes up for in character. And for this reason, I give the pilot a passing grade. This is television, and in television, character is king. So if you nail that, you get some slack on the plot front. Still, if Kapinos thinks this show is going to last with investigations like this, Lucifer’s going to be buying property back in Hell before sweeps week. I hope that doesn’t happen because this series has potential.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: An easy way to avoid Investigation Simplicity Syndrome is to add COMPLICATIONS to the investigation. Just look for places to make things more difficult for your investigators. They go to their next lead – but the lead turns out to be dead. They go to their top suspect, but a lawyer opens the door and says his client won’t be talking to them. The chief of police tells them to stop investigating – the case is closed. It can be anything, as long as it throws the investigation off its typical path.