I’ve had a lot of people e-mailing me telling me that Blake Snyder died of cardiac arrest this morning. It is indeed very sad news. Snyder was the first person since Syd Field to break screenwriting down in such a way that anyone could understand it in his bestselling book, “Save The Cat!” Every person who wanted to write a screenplay, I recommended they read that book first. Snyder’s core approach was to put just as much emphasis on prepping your screenplay as writing it, and he was gung-ho about going out and testing your concept on anyone who would lend you an ear. “Go wait for a movie to end and poll the outgoing audience,” he would say. This completely changed the way I approached screenplays as I realized you can spend six months crafting the perfect screenplay, but if you don’t find out ahead of time if anyone will see it, it’s all for naught. He famously published his e-mail address in the book and challenged anyone wondering if their concept was good to e-mail him and he’d give you his opinion. I picked up the book two full years after it was released and sent a handful of loglines expecting never to hear back. Within two minutes I got a response, endorsing two and telling me to ditch the other three. I thought that was pretty cool. Blake Snyder will be missed.
Blake Snyder 1957-2009
For those who have forgotten, this is two in a series of five scripts I’ll be reviewing this week from represented writers who have not sold a script. The exercise is meant to explore the level of quality it takes to obtain agency representation. Enjoy!
Premise: A down on his luck Jr. High teacher is shocked when he finds a real live money tree growing in his house.
Writer: Ryan Belenzon
Malcom McCree And The Money Tree gets my Title Of The Month award. And the concept is great. How many times have you heard, “Money doesn’t grow on trees”? But what if it did? What if you had your very own bank with no withdraw limit? No fees? No deposit slips or Quicken entries. Just pure endless money. This modern day Brewster’s Millions could easily star Jack Black or Will Ferrel prancing around buying everything in sight. But I had some substantial problems with Mr McCree and his money tree. Enough so that a couple of rewrites may be in order before this is legitimately “spec-ready.”
Malcom is a junior high teacher who’s just lost his girlfriend, Daisy, a science teacher and the very definition of marriage material. The West Side Story superfan can’t make it through a single day without realizing how miserable his life is. To add salt to the wound, the school’s having a budget crisis and decides to cut back on Malcom’s salary. Malcom heads to a local bar with his insane postman friend, Jerry, and laments about how being poor has ruined his life. If only he was rich…all his problems would go away.
So after meeting a strange Indian Man at his local 7-11, he buys a lottery ticket and heads home. The lottery ticket turns out to be a dud, but it slips through a crack in his living room and the next morning a tree sprouts through the floor, a tree filled with 100 dollar bills. After Malcom realizes he isn’t dreaming, he quits his job and goes on the world’s wildest spending spree (hey! That sounds like a reality show in the making). Malcom experiences cars and clothes and trashy women galore. A world with money is exactly how he envisioned it would be. What a life.
But alas, too much of a good thing gets old no matter what that thing is. I remember when I first discovered Cold Stone. I went there every day for two weeks… I haven’t been back since. That was three years ago. So yeah, Malcom becomes so numb to money, he doesn’t even know what to do with it anymore. It gets so bad he actually conducts experiments such as filling up his pool with horse manure and seeing how much money it will take for people to swim in it.
Once the money has seeped into his veins, Malcom completely loses a grip on reality. The onetime nice guy has turned into the world’s biggest sleazeball. So he shifts his attention to getting Daisy back – as he realizes she’s the only thing that can offer him true happiness. But she’s moved on to an asshole politician running for office named (I have to admit, this made me laugh) “Scott Scotterson”. Scott ups the ante when he becomes Daisy’s night in shining armor – offering to save Malcom’s former cash-strapped school. But Malcom finds out Scott’s got more on his mind than giving Mikey and Tina nicer science books. Looks like Scott’s embezzling a huge chunk of the incoming budget and funneling it directly into his campaign.
But before Malcom can expose Scott, Scott does some investigating of his own and becomes very suspicious of Malcom’s tightly guarded house and newfound wealth. He believes Malcom’s counterfeiting money (which, essentially, he is) and threatens Malcom with a counter-threat. “I’ll tell on you if you tell on me.”
There are three things that bothered me about Malcom McCree and The Money Tree. The first is the lack of a goal for Malcom. I’m a strong believer that in these high-concept comedies, the protagonist should be trying to achieve something. Take Liar Liar for example. Jim Carrey is trying to win the case that’s going to get him partner. Without that, the main character wanders away from the story and we keep forgetting what the point is. Second, I wasn’t convinced that Malcom was ever *really* in need of money. Sure he had a low-paying job. But there’s no evidence that money played any part in Daisy leaving him, or is responsible for any of the major problems in his life. Therefore the appearance of this money tree doesn’t have that “save the world” effect I think it’s supposed to have. Finally, all the stuff with Scott and Daisy felt more like an attempt to flesh out the story than to create a plot that actually meshed with the movie’s theme. To me, everything should’ve revolved around money. That’s what we’re talking about here. So why we were delving into politics and saving schools was a mystery to me.
Malcom McCree And The Money tree is a great concept with a great title that needs a little more focus. But I want to thank Ryan for being brave and allowing me to read his script. Check out Malcom McCree yourself and tell me what you think.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Malcom McCree And The Money Tree has a great premise. What would you do if a money tree started growing in your house? But a concept like this isn’t as much of a slam dunk as you think. High concept comedies always feel genius when you first think of them. But veteran writers know that all the funny stuff in those ideas is going to last 15-20 minutes of screentime tops. What are you going to do with the other 90 minutes? The question shouldn’t be, “How many funny scenes can I get out of this?” But rather, what am I trying to say with this story? What kind of character do I want to explore? Will he have enough depth to take us through a 110 page screenplay? What characters and sub-plots can I add to ensure this story warrants an entire movie? If you have strong answers to those questions, then maybe you have a screenplay. If you don’t, you might want to move on to the next idea. I’m not sure Malcom McCree And The Money Tree falls into this category because I think a rewrite can improve the script a great deal. But more than a few times I asked myself, “Is there enough here for an entire film?”
Steven Spielberg has passed over Matt Helm, his take on the Jason Bourne phenomenon, in favor of directing a 60 year old play about a man who befriends an invisible rabbit, “Harvey” (no relation to Donnie Darko). The play won the Pulitzer prize and went on to become a movie starring Jimmy Stewart. This is the very first screenplay for Jonathan Tropper, who spends the majority of his time writing novels. He does have quite a few of his adapted projects in development though, including last year’s Black List entry, After Haily, about a war photographer who loses the love of his life. The script is pretty good if a little depressing. To learn more about the deal, head over to Variety. If you have Harvey, please send it to Carsonreeves1@gmail.com. I know Spielberg keeps things close to the chest, but I’d like to read this one.
Wow. So I received over 150 submissions for this little experiment. I want to thank you guys for the overwhelming response. It’s a bit humbling. I felt a bit like an agent myself, shifting through the loglines, trying to figure out which scripts to read. It wasn’t fun. All of you said such nice things, I wanted to read all 150. Of course, that would put us well into 2010 before I had time to post again, so I had to nix that idea. Still, choosing 5 out of 150 wasn’t easy. I wanted to pick five different genres, but at the same time, I didn’t want to pick a script in a genre I disliked as I knew that would probably result in a negative review. And I didn’t want to give any negative reviews. But this is a review site. Not a pat-you-on-the-back-and-tell-you-you’re-awesome site. So even though I got about 50 loglines that I thought, “hmm, this could be good,” I went with the five I thought had the best chance of being great, funny, compelling, interesting, or all four. And I was going to review them as honestly as possible. Shall we see how it turned out?
For those who have forgotten, this is one in a series of five scripts I’ll be reviewing this week from represented writers who have not sold a script. The exercise is meant to explore the level of quality it takes to obtain agency representation. Enjoy!
Premise: After wrecking his marriage, his liver, and a 737, an alcoholic ex-airline pilot tries to put his life back together.
About: Matthew (one half of the writing team) is a blogger himself doing breakdowns of DVDs at Criterion Collection DVDs. He and Adam are repped over at UTA and managed by Circle of Confusion. The two are going out with a new spec soon.
Writers: Adam Price & Matthew Dessem
Clearly Matt and Adam have been waiting for this moment. They’ve been tracking my taste, planning and plotting, looking for just the right moment to storm the Scriptshadow beach and take the island. Because they obviously understand what I like. “Everything Must Go,” a story about a man who sets up a living quarters on his front lawn when his wife locks him out of their house, plays to just about everything I like in a story (please find an actor for this and make it now!). So when I heard Matt and Adam’s logline, a logline that sounded like “Everything’s” second cousin, I couldn’t control the magical download finger that transfers my next reading experience onto my hard drive.
But beware the follow-up blues. Whenever we see something great, something that personally moves, shocks or excites us, we want more of it. And we want it now. But when, in the history of mankind, has there ever been anything that’s capitalized on the success of something else, and was actually better? After Pearl Jam we got Soundgarden. After Lord Of The Rings we got Dungeons and Dragons. After Pac Man we got Q-Bert. Ultimately, you end up disappointed, feeling like you just witnessed a shallower emptier version of your previous love affair. That’s not to say that Adam and Matthew even knew about Everything Must Go when they wrote The Conquered. I’m speaking for myself, the reader’s perspective. And these similar second endeavors almost always end up in disappointment.
So then what’s the deal? Was the first script in our Repped Week any good? Was this a disastrous idea? Are these writers without a sale so far out of the big-timer’s league that they don’t even deserve any Scriptshadow love? Let’s find out.
The Conquered is kind of like a cross between Everything Must Go and The Wrestler. Frank is this beat up guy. His wife, Kelly, left him for an “actuary,” which is a job Frank’s never even heard of. He’s pissed about the ordeal, even though he has no right to be. Let’s be honest. When your spouse is gardening in another man’s lawn, chances are it’s not because you’re Husband Of The Year. In a move so monumentally moronic it makes my Freshman year at college look like a year in seminary, Frank, a pilot, stumbles into the cockpit of his flight, wasted beyond recognition. He proceeds to kick the co-pilot out, start the plane, pass out onto the controls, and roll a 737 into the airport lobby.
Needless to say, Frank loses his wings and six months later finds himself slumming it in Hollywood (note to non-Los Angelinos: Hollywood is very very dirty), selling off his things to pay for rent and food. Frank’s best friend Virgil is a bit of an oaf but has a good heart. Ironically, Virgil just lost his life as well. After 16 years she didn’t even leave him a note. He spends most of his days hunched over in Frank’s apartment, weeping like a little girl.
Virgil nabs Frank a job at his brand new employer’s, The Matchstick Company, pulling levers on an assembly line. On his very first day, Frank manages to somehow set both himself and Virgil on fire. But Virgil meets and falls in love with his Mexican boss, Elena. The relationship occasionally ropes Frank into doing things he doesn’t want to do. Any time he’s not getting shitfaced watching TV is considered unproductive. But a party at Elena’s introduces him to Elena’s drop-dead gorgeous 18 year old (and still in high school) daughter, Lily, a blossoming artist stuck in a going-nowhere situation. Her thug boyfriend, Nando, has just gotten out of jail, and Elena is desperate to keep Lily away from him.
Frank does everything in his power to destroy his life short of swallowing an atom bomb. He drinks, drinks, drinks, and when the liquor runs out, he lies, cheats, and steals to get more. Occasionally he’ll rendezvous with the local bar owner, the mature but attractive Angie. Not only does he pull a one night stand on poor Angie, but also steals a stuffed dog of hers and names it “Mr. President.” Mr President becomes Frank’s best friend and unwitting accomplice in an ongoing attempt to throw his life away.
When Elena finds out that Lily’s sneaking out with Nando, she starts sending him over to Frank’s so he can keep an eye on her. They don’t have very much in common and she seems baffled that Frank can sit there and watch The Weather Channel and infomercials for six hours straight (For the record, this does not even come close to my 8 hour ESPN marathons). Slowly, the two develop a friendship, and Frank starts to pull himself out of that 20-mile hole he’s been digging. The friendship leads to a few dates and the dates lead to one night of sex. But ironically, after a lifetime of screwing others over, it’s Lily who realizes she made a mistake, and she’s the one who wants nothing to do with Frank. After this karmic taste of his own medicine, Frank’s forced to square of with Co-Nando The Barbarian. And as you can probably guess, it doesn’t go well.
There’s an honesty in The Conquered that you don’t find in a lot of scripts – an aversion to play it safe, a hesitancy to wrap things up in a neat bow. And that’s what I liked about the story. Frank is pretty much despicable and has no real desire to better his life. He’s trapped in that place in your life where you’re supposed to have everything, yet you have nothing. So you start to think, what’s the point in trying? What’s the point in sticking it out? He drifts from beer to beer, shot to shot, and somehow, through it all, we still root for him. There’s a part of us that wants Frank to get back up on his feet, because we think maybe, if he can, we can. It’s always a daring choice to go with an anti-hero, Paul Newman as opposed to Will Smith. But when it works, the story is richer for it.
The script isn’t perfect. I’m still not sure why Elena would leave her 18 year old daughter with a raging alcoholic she barely knows. Not exactly the daycare center I’d send my kids to. And I feel like the script lacks that one “big moment,” near the middle. The drifting nature of Frank motivates a fairly straight-forward narrative, but I was looking for that one jolt, that one surprise to knock me out of my seat. I don’t like it when I start to feel too comfortable in a script. And that happened a bit in The Conquered.
Needless to say, The Conquered was still an enjoyable experience. With a little exposure, it has Black List written all over it. Definitely not Top 50%, but somewhere in the lower half for sure. If you liked The Wrestler, or the scripts Everything Must Go and Up In The Air, you should check this one out pronto.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A lot of writers just starting out leave their supporting characters out to dry. They’re not concerned with them – their backstory, their goals, their purpose. Smart writers have something going on with all of their characters. In the case of The Conquered, Virgil, Frank’s friend, plays a crucial part in the story. His own collapsed marriage and new relationship with Elena is what leads to the main romantic storyline between Frank and Lily. Inexperienced writers would probably bring Virgil in as the “funny guy” and not go any further than that. He wouldn’t have any depth or any goals of his own. But by taking your time and really giving each character something to do, something to seek out in the film, you create a richer more fulfilling experience for your reader.