Carson note: I don’t think I’ve come across a script that’s caused more controversy in the last few years than Butter. Butter is a 2008 Nicholl winner that’s inspired all sorts of hatred – most of it directed at the contest which anointed it one of the five winners of its prestigious competition. Much like yesterday’s script, The Visitor…I mean The Tourist…I mean The Visitor — whatever the hell I reviewed! – opinions vary widely on this one. Which side of the fence do I fall on? Well, let’s just say that after I read Butter, I removed all butter from my fridge and vowed never again to eat any butter. Like, ever. The script felt too cute for its own good, quirky for the sake of being quirky, and preachy enough to start its own congregation. The central conflict didn’t even make sense as the reigning Butter champion – a man who lived to make these sculptures – quit the sport simply because someone asked him to. But all of that’s irrelevant because today the stage belongs to my buddy Ralphy – the only man in the world who reads as much as I do. Ralphy was originally supposed to review this two months ago but you know what they say: Better really really late than never. Ralphy, what did you think?
Premise: A 12 year-old butter sculpting prodigy takes on the uber-competitive wife of Iowa’s best butter sculptor in a butter carving contest of epic proportions.
About: This script was a 2008 Nicholl finalist as well as #3 on the 2008 Black List.
Writer: Jason Micallef
Let’s face it: At some point in our lives, we’ve all looked at that stick of butter in the refrigerator and said, “Damn, I wish I had ten thousand of those so I could make a likeness of David Bowie. Or Ronald Reagan. Or Barbara Strei— Wait, no—Angelina Jolie! Ooh, ooh… a Ferrari! Angelina Jolie driving a Ferrari!”
Which is why a script about a cutthroat butter sculpting competition in Iowa is pretty damned brilliant. I mean, it plays on one of our deepest desires: the desire to create art out of food. Think about it. How many of us have sculpted our mashed potatoes into Devil’s Tower thanks to that one short (yet vital) scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? And how many of us have done it EVERY TIME WE’VE EATEN MASHED POTATOES? (Bonus points if you’ve said “This means something” on five or more occasions.)
See? Now how many of us are going to turn that half-used, semi-rectangular glob of Land O’ Lakes into a miniature Roger Federer, mid-swing, if Jason Micallef’s Butter ever hits theaters? I know Carson will. And I imagine at least fifty million more of us will do SOMETHING weird with it seconds before we spread it on our toast. Or use it to make cookies. Mmmmmmmmmmm… cookies.
But I digress.
Here’s the thing. This script was a Nicholl finalist for a reason. The story is pretty simple: 12 year-old Destiny, a black girl who can’t understand why white people act the way they do, has been passed around from foster home to foster home, never quite finding the right fit. Her latest foster parents, Jill and Ethan, are seemingly perfect yet somewhat dysfunctional white suburbanites. Oh, and Destiny is a brilliant butter sculptor. As is the husband of feisty, bitch-on-wheels Laura Pickler. Bob’s his name, and no one has or will ever beat him in the annual butter sculpting competition. (They all live in Iowa, where butter sculpting competitions are very serious business.) When Orval, the main judge of the Iowa State Mastery in Butter Committee, asks Bob to step down this year and give someone else a shot, Laura gets mighty pissed. So pissed that she berates Bob endlessly when he won’t fight the decision. And then she decides to take butter into her own hands and enter the competition herself, at which point she becomes an archnemesis of sorts for Destiny. And thus, the story is born. Or sculpted.
I won’t bore you with plot details. The script follows the classic sports film paradigm, culminating in a showdown between Laura and Destiny. But along the way, it also manages to be a quirky, dark comedy as well as a moving character study.
Much has been made about the oddness of the concept. People wonder why anybody would want to see a movie like this. Well, why not? As far as I’m concerned, it’s cinematic as hell. I mean, look at the fantastic sh*t people have made out of butter. For example:
Also, according to Wikipedia, butter sculpting is an “ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition” used in religious celebrations. So not only is it wicked filmable, it’s Buddhist!
And the script itself has that irresistible Little Miss Sunshine indie charm. The characters all come alive on the page, worming their various ways into our heart valves like so much cholesterol. And the tone achieves just the right marriage between satire and homage; between comedy and pathos; between American Beauty and… well, American Beauty. If the right director and cast get involved, this could be another critical darling that finds a sizable audience outside of arthouse theaters. Juno, anyone?
Yes, I’m saying this could be another Juno. Or American Beauty. Or Little Miss Sunshine.
Does the script have its problems? Of course it does. Don’t be silly. For one thing, characters undergo major changes of heart that aren’t warranted by the events which precede them. It’s almost as if the writer’s invisible hand were… Well, by now you get the idea. For another thing, not all of the tonal shifts are seamless. But these are fixable problems in a script that is otherwise bold and unique.
Now, I’m sure by this point most of you are thinking, “Wait a minute—sometimes this Ralphy character sounds awfully sarcastic and sometimes he sounds really sincere.” To which I reply (because I can read your thoughts), “I am merely attempting to mimic the tone of the script to give you an idea what you’re in for.”
And on that note, I bid you all farewell. It’s been a great, gooey mass of graven fun. (They keep them in giant coolers, by the way. You know, so they won’t melt. In case you were wondering.) I’m sure Carson will never, ever let me write a guest article for him again.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Well, I didn’t really learn anything because I already know everything there is to know about screenwriting. But one thing this script illustrates is the importance of voice. Butter has it—in droves. But it’s not “voice for the sake of voice”; it’s the type of voice that suggests a film that will also have its own voice.
note: If you know nothing about this script, I suggest you download it before reading anything below. The beginning plays out much better if you do.
Genre: Sci-Fi Dark Comedy
Premise: An alien who lives on Earth in female form searches desperately for a way back to her home planet. Best watch yourself E.T.
About: So on the Holy Grail list of best unproduced screenplays, this is usually mentioned in the top 3. It is said it would have been made had it not been for Men In Black. For a fascinating backstory on the script which chronicles its plight through a series of Hollywood legends, go here.
Writer: Claire Noto
THE TOURIST has always had incredible supporters and incredible detractors. Right from the very beginning it aroused very strong feelings one way or another. People were either very taken by it or felt it was the Anti christ. I still don’t, to this day, really comprehend what all the fuss was about. – Claire Noto
Richard Jenkins plays a college professor who discovers a pair of homeless, illegal aliens living in his New York apartment. But instead of giving them the boot, the lonely introspective Jenkins decides to let them stay. An unexpected friendship begins, dragging Jenkins out of his comfort zone and into the——Wait a minute. Wait a minute. That’s The Visitor. My bad.
Let’s start over. Grace is your average driven, if slightly eccentric, executive at a no-name corporation with more floors than ideas. But almost immediately we sense that something’s off about the chick. She’s constantly distracted and as far as I can tell, not very interested in her work. When her overworked assistant, Marty, pesters Grace about a flurry of messages from someone named “Frogner”, Grace’s unorthodox yet concerned reaction hints at an iceberg of a person we’re only seeing the tip of.
Hot and bothered by the Frogger messages, Grace hops over to a business party with her on-again off-again boyfriend. He tells anyone who will listen that Grace isn’t giving it up. Why he’s sharing this with complete strangers I have no idea. While the eternally-distracted Grace observes the party, on the other side of the room Sideshow Frogner, the bug-eyed over-caffeinated message-leaver, sneaks in and charges over to Grace like a lost dog. He bombards her with requests for business, to which she’s cautiously receptive.
But as Grace and Frogner lock into an intense stare, they see something in each other that freaks them the hell out. Enough to send Frogner racing out of the party. Grace goes chasing after him but obviously, once they get outside, Frogger’s got the advantage when crossing the streets, and easily ditches Grace.
The encounter rattles Grace enough that she makes it a priority to find Frogger at all costs. Over the next couple of days she follows a trail of clues that leads her to a funeral home. Except this isn’t your ordinary funeral home. Behind the walls, through a hidden door, Grace makes her way into a hidden backstage universe. Aliens from all over the galaxy are chatting it up in a dark eerie pub. Grace tiptoes through, shocked but also calm – as if she’s heard about this place. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out why. Grace is really an alien. And these fellows are her alien brethren. It is here, she hopes, that somebody will be able to tell her how to get back to her home planet.
Although Noto doesn’t care to get into some pretty important details – namely how the hell Grace got to this planet and why – she does give us clues. Apparently earth is some sort of galactic armpit of the universe – the biggest criminals and scum of the galaxy are sent here when there’s nowhere else to put them. This is one of the many nonsensical pieces of The Tourist. If these aliens are so bad, why the hell are they spending all their time hiding in the shadows? Why, in all these years, have they done nothing bad to us? I mean if they’re as bad as it gets, the universe must be a pretty fucking awesome place.
Connections she makes in the pub lead Grace to a new target, the elusive Taiga, the only guy who has the means to get off this planet. Hoping to hitch a ride, she begins a desperate search to find him.
The most surprising thing about The Tourist are its moments of unapologetic darkness. Grace walks into houses to find the disembodied eyeballs of a mother and daughter. When Grace visits the alien hangout, one of the aliens not so discreetly slips a tentacle up and into her nether-regions, performing a probe that definitely isn’t for scientific purposes. As all the aliens watch, Grace, who essentially allows it, nears orgasm until someone comes along and obliterates the offending alien. Weird sex runs rampant throughout The Tourist with scenes that are so odd, Dr. Ruth would have a hard time making sense of them. People die having sex. People grow cocoons while having sex. People dream of having sex as giant worms on other planets. I don’t know what else to say. Lots of weird sex going on here. Weird alien sex.
As the script went on, more and more rules are thrown out the window. I found myself getting increasingly annoyed. The last 30 pages were particularly baffling, as seemingly all structure and logic were jettisoned in favor of the most anti-climactic ending in cinema history. Grace is trying to secure a ride home from Taiga but the transport isn’t anywhere even close to nearby, and it’s clear they don’t have time to get to it, erasing any and all suspense about if Grace is going to make it. While this is happening all Grace does is bitch about how much she hates the planet. Then at the last second, she has some half-assed epiphany where she believes she’s bonded with a human. For the first time she’s “conflicted” [/me rolling eyes] At this point the writing and purpose are so sloppy and slapped together, I actually stopped paying attention.
I honestly couldn’t tell you why this script is so popular. There’s some imagination in here for sure. But they’re kidding themselves if they think Men In Black is the reason this didn’t get made. The script’s got major issues, especially the last 40-50 pages. What a mess. In interviews, Noto has practically bragged about her disregard for structure, inspired by the no-rules anything-goes attitude of the European New Wave. I’m not Structure Sammy or anything, but in my experience almost every script that ignores structure completely falls apart in the end. And what do you know? The Tourist completely falls apart in the end.
Noto’s complained that executives have been notoriously cruel to her in dealing with the script, telling her no one would go see the movie. Well I’m sorry to champion the evil empire here but in this case, THEY WERE RIGHT. What really did it for me though was Grace herself. Call me old-fashioned but I’m not about to do jumping jacks for a protagonist that spends the majority of the fucking screenplay whining about how much she hates my planet.
Ugh, I just didn’t like this. I’d designate it as trash if the first act wasn’t so intriguing.
[ ] trash
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Even though I didn’t like this script, I want to focus on the positive because there is a great scene in the beginning. Early on, Grace is at a party and there are 3 separate things going on at the same time. First is her date, who she’s not paying attention to. Second is a handsome man hitting on her. She’s intrigued by the man and their chemistry upsets her date. The third is the mysterious “Frogman”, who comes crashing into the party to close a business deal with her. As we see each thread build, the tension builds along with it. A more inexperienced writer would probably write a straightforward scene that only involved Grace and Frogger. Adding these multiple elements made what could’ve been a boring scene an exciting one (If only she had done this with the rest of the script).
Welcome to Scriptshadow’s second ever interview. For those of you who’ve been with the site for awhile, you already know about my love for Mike Million’s script, “Tenure”, which is number 8 on my Top 25 list (my review can be found here). The script, which landed on the Black List in 2005, eventually attracted interest from Luke Wilson. Funding was secured soonafter and within months, Mike was directing his first film. Mike is definitely one of the good guys in the business, and was very helpful in putting this interview together. So let’s get to it, shall we?
SS: You made the Black List in 2005 with 5 votes. It seems like these days The Black List is going the way of Sundance – with more and more people lobbying to get their projects on it. It’s clear why, with seemingly half of the scripts becoming movies. What are your thoughts on the list and what did it do for Tenure?
MM: I think the Black List is a great thing. I was on it in 2005 which – if I’m not mistaken — was the first year they did it. I had two scripts with multiple mentions that year – TENURE, and a script I wrote called ANALOG.
Honestly, I think I got a couple emails from my agent and a few Hollywood types congratulating me, but that was about it! That said, I’m sure it increased the visibility of both scripts. It’s always an honor to be included on “best of” type lists. I remember sending the list to my parents and pointing out to them that I – their son — was on the same list (twice!) as Aaron Sorkin and David Benioff, to which they replied – “Who are they?”
So, yeah, I’m a fan of the Black List. And you can’t argue with their success ratio. I honestly have no idea if it actually helped TENURE get made, but it certainly didn’t hurt!
SS: How many scripts had you written before Tenure? Was Tenure your favorite one? Or was it just the one that received the best response?
MM: I think I had 3 completed feature scripts before TENURE. And about 100 incomplete ones! I had optioned another script (ANALOG) a year or so earlier and, TENURE was my attempt to follow that script up with a straightforward (i.e. more commercial) comedy. ANALOG is a drama/comedy, but it has a slightly darker edge to it than TENURE does. The response has been great for both scripts, actually. And I hope ANALOG will be the next movie I direct.
SS: I loved Tenure because I attended a small liberal arts college and this really brought me back to that world. But were you ever nervous that a “small liberal arts college” setting might be too narrow a subject matter? Did that ever cross your mind?
MM: I think the world of college is something that most people can connect with – whether it’s a small liberal arts college or a big state school. Mostly, I wanted “Grey College” to be a realistic, funny place. NOT the idealized, perfect – fall foliage in every shot — college world that we see in a lot of college movies. So I didn’t shy away from the small liberal arts college setting at all, I embraced it. I also think the story has enough universal themes – mid-life crisis, fear of losing your job, late coming of age, etc. — that people will be on board regardless of the setting.
SS: Staying with that, there’s that eternal screenwriter’s debate of “Should I write something commercial or should I write something I love?” Which side of the fence do you fall on?
MM: I think it’s possible to do both. One thing I try to do is – when I’m thinking of an idea – is try to boil the movie down to one sentence. I know this is not a revolutionary idea, but it really helps. Test your sentence out on a few people – if they immediately “get it”, then chances are you’ve got a commercial movie idea on your hands. If the idea takes a lot of explaining, then you’re screwed!
But every script is different, so there are no hard and fast rules. TENURE started out with a world – I simply wanted to write a movie about the world of college and professors. ANALOG started with a character.
And to your “love” question – I strongly believe that the best writing happens when you love your idea, character, world, etc. If you have a big, commercial idea, but you don’t love it – that will show in the writing.
SS: I’m a big fan of the dialogue in your script. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and yet it’s still very funny. What’s the secret to good dialogue?
MM: Dialogue is something that has always come easy for me. I think it’s initially what drew me to screenwriting vs. trying to write a novel. My family would probably say it’s because I talk a lot. I’d probably say it’s because THEY talk a lot. Wow. How boring is this answer? I think someone just died reading this. I just killed one of your readers.
One tip I would give aspiring screenwriters is to keep your dialogue short. If you listen to the way people usually talk it’s often in short, clipped, incomplete sentences – and that’s the way I try to write dialogue. I use a lot of elipses (…) and short beats (beat) in between thoughts, so that it sounds like the character is thinking while they are talking.
SS: What’s the one thing you know you have to nail to make a screenplay work? And how do you go about doing that?
MM: The absolute most important thing for me is that the reader has to CARE about the characters. And you should be able to make this happen in the first 10 pages of the script. Obviously, the story is hugely important too, but if you have a great story with terrible characters, the script won’t work. The way I try to hook people into my characters is through sympathy. I try to find a way to make people feel sympathetic toward my main character – maybe they feel sorry for their situation, or see a little bit of themselves in the character. Once you do that work, people are on board and the rest is easy. Actually the rest is hard as hell, but at least now you’ve got a good character to build the story around.
SS: What’s your process for getting your screenplay ready to send out? How many friends do you give it to? How many times do you rewrite? How do you know when it’s finally ready?
MM: I typically show about 5 people my first drafts. If they all come back to me with similar ideas/issues – then I know that’s a problem area in the script. As far as sending the script out wide – I think it should be at least a second draft. I tend to rewrite a lot while I’m writing though, so usually by the time I’m done with the second draft it’s pretty polished.
What I’ve found is that I’m kind of a glutton for feedback, but that it isn’t always helpful unless the script is actually READY for feedback. If you start giving out pages too early, sometimes it can mess up the process. So I’ve become a lot more careful about when I give out pages. Writing is a personal process – once you open it up to other opinions the process will change. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just be ready for those opinions.
SS: Do you have both a manager and an agent? Do you think you need both? And how does a new screenwriter get an agent?
MM: I have a manager and an agent. For me, having both works well. They can serve as checks and balances, and they each have a different set of contacts in the industry – which hopefully gives me more exposure. That said, I think it’s up to the writer to decide what he or she needs in terms of representation.
Ahhh… the age-old question “how do I get an agent?” Truly, the only way I know how is to write a good script. Make friends with assistants and give them your scripts. Enter screenwriting contests that have good reputations and industry exposure. And don’t be afraid to use every single possible connection you have!
Another word of advice to aspiring screenwriters – don’t get wedded to one script. If you finish a script, but the reception is luke warm, write another one. Hollywood loves to tell us about the 20 year-old kid who wrote one script and sold it for a million dollars. Good for that kid. But the truth is that is incredibly rare. Most successful writers have several bad scripts under their belt before they have any success in the industry.
SS: It seems like everybody thinks they have a good idea for a movie but how do you really know if you have a good idea? Can you give us an early screenplay idea of yours that you thought was brilliant but in retrospect realized it was terrible? (if not, I can supply you with plenty)
MM: My first screenplay was called KEVORKIAN SUMMER. No joke. I still can’t believe the title alone didn’t get me a blind deal at every studio in town! It was about two college kids who go down to Mexico for the summer and get involved in an assisted suicide. Try to pitch that one! It’s actually a fun script. I bought the script for PULP FICTION and Syd Field’s book “Screenplay”, read them both and wrote my first script.
The worst idea I’ve probably ever had was when this folk-singer guy who worked in a toll-booth emailed me out of the blue. His email was really weird and kind of sad – talking about how he’s been working in a toll-booth for 20 years and how he’s REALLY a musician and how he’s written hundreds of songs. I was like – what a great idea for a movie – the toll-booth folk singer! As a script, that one never quite got out of the gates. I even approached the wonderful radio show THIS AMERICAN LIFE about it. Not sure if they even returned my calls. I’m telling you — someday, someone will make a great toll-booth folk-singer movie and I’ll be pissed.
SS: Going from directing short films and commercials to directing big movie stars on your first feature film is a huge step. Some would say about as likely as spotting Bigfoot. How did Tenure go from spec script to “Go movie”?
MM: A lot of luck and good timing. The first step was finding a producer who would support me as a first-time director – and that was Paul Schiff. It’s incredibly hard to find people in Hollywood who are willing to take risks on first-time directors, but Paul did, and we were off and running. We shopped the script around to financiers and had nibbles, but they all basically said the same thing – come back to us when you get a star. So we started sending it to actors and it’s really still unbelievable to me that we ended up with Luke Wilson. He was my first choice and had been since I wrote the script. Years before TENURE was made, I created a “pitch book” to help get the movie going and I told the storyboard artist to use Luke Wilson’s likeness. The fact that we ended up actually casting him is amazing. Once Luke was on board, a financier stepped up to the plate and suddenly we were in Pennsylvania making a movie! By Hollywood standards, this movie came together very quickly.
I also have to give a lot of credit to my manager and one of the producers of the film – Brendan McDonald. He worked tirelessly getting the script around before we had any real momentum.
SS: Do you look at scriptwriting differently after having directed?
MM: Absolutely. One huge lesson I learned is that sometimes my scene descriptions are fun to read, but hard to film. For example, in the script I described Grey College like this:
EXT. GREY COLLEGE – DAY
A light snow falls on Grey College — a small, unremarkable liberal arts college. The campus is pretty enough with stone buildings, tree-lined streets, and STUDENTS on foot and on bike…
But lurking silently beneath the wintry collegiate charm something else is present at Grey College: an air of barely fulfilled potential, of mere academic adequacy… the quiet, ever present grumbling that this college was everyone’s fourth-choice.
How do you film “everyone’s fourth-choice”? I guess the lesson for me was that when I’m breaking a script down to be shot, I need to pay special attention to passages like this one – so that I’m ready to explain to 100 people what “everyone’s fourth choice” actually looks like!
That said, I still wholeheartedly believe in using description like this in a script. As a writer, you need to make the script fun and readable. As a director, your job is to show it.
Another lesson I learned – mainly in editing – was that sometimes my scenes, as written, were on the long side. We did a lot of trimming scenes down to the bare essentials, which meant cutting many jokes and favorite lines!
I definitely will keep these lessons in mind as I write my next script.
SS: When can we expect a trailer for Tenure and when will it be hitting theaters?
MM: The latest release date I’ve heard is Fall or Winter of ’09.
SS: What other projects are you working on? Can you give us a tease?
MM: I’m writing an original comedy right now. I’ll let you review it when it’s done!
SS: So come on, when did you change your last name to Million? After college? Recently?
MM: It’s my real name – the one I was born with. I’ve always been Mike Million. And if I had a nickel for every bad “millionaire” joke I’ve heard in my life, I’d actually be one.
SS: And finally, Bigfoot has a nice little subplot in your script. Do you believe in Bigfoot?
MM: Let’s just say that I think the world is a MUCH more interesting place with people who believe in Bigfoot in it. And UFO’s. And the Loch Ness Monster.
Man, do I ever identify with that “Everybody’s fourth choice” response. Sheesh. Anyway, that concludes my interview with Mike Million. Very cool guy. I know I will be there front and center when Tenure comes out. If you want to learn more about Mike, you can check out the website for his production company, Third Story Films. There are some outtakes from the movie, some of Mike’s work in short films and commercials, as well as a little more info about Mike himself. Hope you guys got something out of this. I know I did. :)
Ohhh nooooo. It’s a sad day. That’s because “The Hangover” has to come off of my Top 25 list. Only unproduced scripts are allowed in the precious Top 25. I remember a year ago when I first read the script. I thought, “They should definitely make this.” Sure enough, they already were. The movie made 15 million on Friday which will probably put it at 45 for the weekend, beating the doomed from the beginning “Land Of The Lost”, which I reviewed a long time ago here. Not a very good idea and not a well-executed script. You need more in your story than “Will Ferrel runs from dinosaur.” I hope the producers and studio that made this realize that now.
As for The Hangover, it appears to have changed a lot from the original script. I don’t remember a tiger and I don’t remember a baby. I’ll also admit that I didn’t laugh during any of the trailers. So I’m not sure if the changes they made were any good. You had a great script. Why fuck around with it? Still, the core idea behind The Hangover is great, and it seems that’s what audiences responded to. If any of you saw the movie, please share your thoughts in the comments section.
This upcoming week is going to be a little different. On Monday I’ll have my second interview with someone from my Top 10 list. He’s provided some great and insightful answers to a bunch of questions. You young screenwriters are going to love this. I’m also going to review what many consider to be the two best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood: Harrow Alley and The Visitor. There’s a slim chance that I’ll have a guest reviewer for a very controversial Nicholl winner – someone I’ve been trying to get to review a script since I started the site. I’m hoping this will finally be the day. And as for Friday, well, why don’t you decide which script I review. Here are five choices…
1) Umbra – Paranoid thriller that just sold this past week.
2) Conviction – The other script that sold from the writer of “Rites Of Men”
3) The Baster – Comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman
4) Brooklyn’s Finest – The big sale from Sundance
5) Men Who Stare At Goats – Weird script to star George Clooney
Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: An extremely depressed man finds a beaver puppet in the garbage. When he puts it on, his life takes a dramatic turn for the better. Or does it?
About: This was the number 1 script on the Blacklist in 2008, which means all the biggest readers in town loved it. Steve Carrel became interested shortly thereafter, attaching himself, but has since exited the project. It’s now rumored that Jim Carrey is interested, which would make this the 243rd project he’s attached to. So far, nobody has purchased The Beaver.
Writer: Kyle Killen
Welcome to The Scriptshadow Challenge – Second Installment. Hopefully you all read your Beaver script last week and are ready to comment on it here and at Go Into The Story. Below you’ll find my review and then Scott Myers’. Keeping with tradition, my review is about 1/8 the length of Scott’s. But that’s okay because, as usual, he gives great analysis. So consider this the appetizer and Scott’s the main course. Afterwards, leave your own reviews in the comments section and together we can determine why the script was so well-loved. Enjoy!
The Beaver is a pretty solid little script. It’s a thinly veiled (albeit dark) version of “Guy drinks magical potion. Life changes for the better.” What separates it from the rest of these types of films is that it’s not a comedy. Well, it is, but not really. It’s actually a serious look at how depression ruins families and how distraction and denial may work as temporary lifeboats from the disease, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with the real issues.
The story follows our suicidal main character, Walter, whose depression is so bad that his family kicks him out of the house (way to help out Fam!). Walter finds a beaver sock puppet in the trash that, for shits and giggles, he slips on. As soon as he does, it starts talking…in a British accent. The puppet informs Walter that he’s here to save his life. From that point on, he relieves Walter of all talking duties. His goal? To put Walter’s life back together.
He starts with Walter’s toy company, where he begins restructuring the main toy line. He moves to the children, who at first seemed baffled that their dad is talking through a puppet, but eventually warm to it. He even brings the beaver into the bedroom to join him and his wife for a little sexy-time. Needless to say, she’s a little freaked out. Now you may be asking, “Why would a group of men follow orders from a British puppet? Why would a perfectly reasonable woman allow a puppet to be involved in her sex life?” The answer is because the beaver (er, I mean, Walter) is happy for the first time in as long as anyone can remember. And since everything is going so well, nobody wants to rock the boat…in case it falls on the dam. And that’s where the problems start. Once the beaver gets a taste of this power, he wants more of it. A lot more.
I congratulate The Beaver for working on many levels. Unfortunately, I don’t think I understand all of them. It’s unclear to me whether Walter is puppeting the beaver, or if the beaver’s a real live animal/thing with its own brain and body. I mean, of course he’s just puppeting it, but in the end, nobody can take the puppet off of him. It’s physically impossible to remove it. So has the beaver turned real? Was it real all along? Is Kyle Killen, the writer, laughing at me right now? Or is all this just a concoction of Walter’s demented depressed mind? I’m still not sure what the answer is.
Walter finally comes to the realization that a puppet is controlling his life, and decides to put an end to the beaver. Since he can’t pull it off, he cuts it off, along with his hand. With the puppet now dead (at least until the sequel) Walter can finally face the reality of his life and try to overcome his depression the right way.
If I were to note the highlights of the script, it would be two superb scenes, one in the middle and one towards the end, that give a very thoughtful and powerful assessment on how we humans live our lives. The first is the beaver in an interview with Matt Lauer (yes, Matt Lauer) and the other is Walter’s son’s graduation speech which we hear in voice over. It’s heartbreaking stuff about how our life is pretty much set and all we can really do is go along for the ride. Both speeches are so powerful and so dead-on that these moments alone make up for most of the script’s deficiencies.
The last thing I’ll say about the script is that it’s not the best script I read on The Black List, but it’s definitely the most memorable. And I think there’s a lesson here. 9 out of 10 writers would’ve explored this concept as a broad comedy. The fact that we’re essentially watching a drama about a guy who talks through a British beaver puppet distinguishes this script from every other script out there. So that even if you disliked the script, chances are you still remembered it. That’s why it got noticed.
Check this out. It’s worth a read.
Script link: The Beaver
[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: As I just stated, doing something different with your screenplay will set you apart from all the other writers pushing predictable crap into Hollywood. It’s a calculated risk though because you probably won’t sell the script through traditional channels. But, if it’s well-executed, like The Beaver, you can make it onto the Black List, which gives your script exposure, which in turn could attract talent and lead to a sale.
Now for Scott’s take:
“The Beaver” is an exceptional script, a dark comedy with a most unusual hook: One of the story’s primary characters is a hand puppet — “The Beaver” — who comes ‘alive’ and basically takes over the plot. It’s extremely well-written with interesting and sharply drawn characters, a nicely structured yet surprising plot, and the writer infuses the script with strong visuals, all of which helps to lift the story off the printed page and into one’s imagination. The script also has three big areas of concern in terms of the story — more on those later.
Here is some background on the screenplay:
Writer: Kyle Killen
News: The script topped The 2008 Black List”, the “most liked” unproduced script as determined by votes of 250 Hwood development execs.
Originally set up in November, 2008 with Steve Carell to star, now Jim Carrey and Jodie Foster are circling the project, Carrey as the lead and Foster to direct.
As far as I know, “The Beaver” is Killen’s first script sale.
Walter: A depressed middle-aged man who suddenly was forced to take over as CEO of a toy company, a job for which he was not suited, nearly driving the company into the ground. Husband and father of two sons.
Meredith: Walter’s stalwart, patient, and forgiving ‘soccer mom’ wife.
Porter: Walter’s cynical high school senior son who feels trapped by his father’s genetic and behavioral shadow (i.e., he will turn out like Walter).
Henry: Walter’s grade school son who leads a nearly invisible life among his peers, except when they’re bullying him.
Norah: Overachieving high school senior, Porter’s love interest.
The Beaver: An animal puppet with a “crisp English accent” who becomes Walter’s personal psychological therapist, lifestyle coach, inseparable companion, and increasingly Walter’s ‘voice.’
Per the ten major plot points of Narrative Throughline, the plot breaks down as follows:
Opening (P. 1-4): Establish Walter, his job, his family, and his state of deep depression, setting up his ensuing suicide attempt.
The Hook (P. 13-15): The Beaver comes to ‘life’ and asserts, “I’m The Beaver, Walter. I’m here to save your goddamned life.”
The Lock (P. 29-33): After Walter introduces The Beaver to his family, there is a big meeting at Walter’s office, setting into motion the ticking clock (toy expo), and finalizing all the various subplots.
First Big Test (P. 40-45): Montage showing the deconstruction of Walter’s life — from depressed, non-functioning human to vital, positive figure, but laced with an implicit threat: What’s going to happen with The Beaver?
Transition (P. 63-65): On Walter and Meredith’s 20th anniversary date, Walter breaks down when given a memory box filled with photos from his and his family’s past, ending with The Beaver’s assertion to Meredith, “He can’t go back… He’s not going back to that.”
Second Big Test (P. 74-75): Unable to free himself of The Beaver, Walter’s family leaves him.
All Is Lost (P. 92-93): With Walter retreating into his original depressed state and The Beaver increasingly the dominant personality of the two, Walter cuts off his puppet hand and buries The Beaver in a coffin.
On the Defensive (P. 95-96): With his business and family life collapsing around him, and recovering with a prosthetic hand, Walter is sent to a psychiatric hospital.
On the Offensive (P. 96-99): Walter meets with Meredith and Henry, and it turns out Walter is doing better and could be ready to go home soon.
Final Struggle (P. 106-107): Walter and Porter meet at the hospital, and confront core emotional issues.
The Denouement: Walter returns home with his family, happily waving goodbye to Porter as Porter takes off on a road trip with Norah.
And therein lies one of the rubs: While Walter and The Beaver’s relationship creates the spine of the Plotline, for much of the script, it feels like Porter’s story.
So let me do a breakdown of the story’s character archetypes, one with Walter as the story’s Protagonist, another with Porter as the P.
The story is framed throughout to be about Walter and his relationship with The Beaver. It’s his eventual goal — to be with his family — that leads him into his ultimate conflict with The Beaver. And yet, for much of the script — almost all of the second act — Walter’s character virtually disappears. The Beaver takes over so while Walter is present physically, he is rarely involved emotionally. It’s only when Walter makes the cut — literally — from The Beaver that Walter ends up in a unity state where each day is a work-in-progress, but there’s a clear sense that he is getting better.
Nemesis: The Beaver
If you think of all those Blank From Hell movies in the 80s and 90s, this script could be thought of as The Plush Doll From Hell. Starts out as Walter’s friend, then over time dominates their relationship, revealing itself to be the primary obstacle Walter needs to overcome in order to achieve his goal: Get back with his family.
Attractor: Meredith / Henry / Porter
In order of time spent and emotional depth — as far as Walter’s character is concerned — the Attractor characters are Meredith, then Henry, and finally Porter. But as we’ll see when looking at the story with Porter as the Protag, the script has many scenes and dynamics that suggest it’s at its heart a father-son story (this is underscored by the script’s penultimate scene — the rapprochment between Porter and Walter). And yet, of all the primary characters, Walter spends the least amount of time with Porter. So in actuality, the father-son story is almost exclusively approached via Porter and his POV.
Mentor: Walter’s memories of his family
Throughout most of the script, The Beaver wears a Mentor’s mask, providing advice, encouraging Walter, and eventually taking charge of all Walter’s decision-making. So I suppose you could argue that The Beaver takes on the role of Dark Wisdom. But what ‘saves’ Walter in the end is when he reconnects with his family, spurred by the breakthrough when he sorts through all the photos Meredith has provided for him with his Memory Box.
Trickster: Walter’s depression
Clearly it provides one enormous test after another for Walter, almost causing himself to commit suicide as the story begins. Once The Beaver takes over, he manages to manipulate Walter out of his depressed state — seemingly — but eventually the depression returns. And in a twist befitting a Trickster, it’s that return that causes the final emotional cleavage between Walter and The Beaver, leading to Walter sawing off his puppet hand.
Now let’s look at the character archetypes with Porter as the Protag:
Of all the characters in the movie, no one deals more in depth and directly with their own emotional issues than Porter. In his relationships with his family, with Nora, and several scenes alone with himself, in a very real way, Porter confronts who Walter is even more than Walter does. Yes, Walter tries to commit suicide, but after The Beaver appears, Walter essentially flips a switch for the duration of Act One and much of Act Two. It’s Porter, who may know Walter’s behavioral quirks even better than Walter himself, who confronts again and again his own personal issues.
Walter = Curse as far as Porter is concerned. Walter is a deadly combination of repugnant habits and bad DNA, driving Porter to obsess if he will turn out to be like his father. It’s only after Walter has gone through his own catharsis and made the separation from The Beaver, achieving some version of a unity state, where Porter is able to approach his father as a peer and not the enemy.
To me, this is almost the most interesting relationship in the script. Two young people, both of whom labor under long, dark psychological shadows — Porter and the legacy of his father, Norah and the legacy of her brother. Their conflict and discourse is pointed and smart, and there’s a continual flip-flop from one to the other about who is in the ‘power position,’ who is in the right, who knows what they’re talking about that makes this subplot quite interesting.
Mentor: Porter the Writer
Porter is a smart kid and he uses his way with words for his own financial benefit by ghost-writing papers and essays for his classmates. It’s his writer self that precipitates his intersection with Norah. It’s his commitment to ghost-writing her commencement speech that allows the couple to get to know each other. And in what seems like a negative experience, it’s his writing that gets him into trouble (the essay he wrote for Hector), kicked out of school, and rejected Brown University. But in the end, it turns out Porter needed to get knocked off that path (just like Norah requires a break from going straight to Stanford). However the most important moment where Porter’s writer self provides wisdom is when Norah tells him that the commencement address he wrote was not about her, it is actually about Porter. And in reading his own words, Porter comes to a place where he can finally go to meet his father one-on-one.
Trickster: The Beaver
On the one hand, The Beaver turns around Walter’s depression, seemingly a good thing for Porter. But then The Beaver’s continuing presence in the family’s life simply accentuates Porter’s concern about becoming like his father — it makes Walter even weirder.
AREAS OF CONCERN
Now let me say again, I enjoyed this script. I think it will make an interesting movie. But if I was one of the filmmakers involved in this project, I would have some concerns about how it works — or doesn’t work — as a story.
1. Walter’s disappearance: As noted, during much of Act Two, Walter’s character — while present physically — disappears as an active persona for a long stretch of time. In many scenes Walter exists as a prop to transport The Beaver around, provide a platform from which The Beaver can pontificate. And one of the classic concerns in screenwriting is not to create a passive Protagonist — but for much of the movie, that’s precisely what Walter is. Now I think that’s precisely the point the writer is making with Walter’s character, moving from depressed state to what turns out to be a fake state of wellness, back to depression, then resentment toward The Beaver, the separation from The Beaver, and the eventual move into genuine wellness and toward wholeness — he starts off passive, then becomes active. And in theory, I don’t have a problem with that. For example, in the movie Being There, the Protagonist Chance (Peter Sellers) is led about throughout the entire story, the joke being that other people actively interpret Chance’s simplistic gibberish as incredible wisdom. But The Beaver isn’t that kind of story. Besides there is supposedly at the core of this script a subplot that — at least in my view — is not fully realized because of Walter’s ‘disappearance': The father-son story.
2. At its heart, this is a father-and-son story, but one told almost exclusively through the perspective of the son. In fact, for nearly all of the second act, Walter and Porter rarely interact. The writer goes to extra lengths to address that, intercut scenes, split-screen scenes, visual to visual transitions that put the two characters ‘side-by-side,’ but there are only a handful of actual moments where the two characters intersect. An odd way to approach this subplot, especially since the emotional apex of the script is the final meeting between Walter and Porter, however since the two have rarely interacted, the impact is less than it could be. What we carry into that exchange is the specific perspective of Porter who has obsessed throughout about his father’s shadow and a rather generic sense of what Porter, and indeed his whole family means to Walter. Both of those go right back to the previous point — how Walter disappears in Act Two.
3. Finally, going back to an earlier point, even though the Plotline is defined by the relationship between Walter and The Beaver, I found myself constantly pulled toward the emotional plot of Porter’s story. Again this is exacerbated by Walter’s ‘disappearance’ as a character for much of the script. You could try to draw a parallel between this script and American Beauty — actually I think there are many parallels (e.g., drama-comedy, satire on suburban American living, dysfunctional family, father going through a mid-life crisis) — where Walter, like Lester, create the spine for the Plotline and a major subplot is provided by the romance story between flawed teenagers (i.e., Porter & Norah / Ricky & Jane). But Ricky & Jane in American Beauty is truly a subplot, secondary in the amount of time and emotional heft compared to the various subplots Lester is involved in, whereas the Porter & Norah story seems to even transcend the Walter & The Beaver relationship, especially in terms of emotional resonance (at least for me).
That said, I’m not sure these concerns are enough to undercut the power of this script as it gets transformed into a movie. The characters are so richly drawn, the dialogue so smart, the humor biting, the drama compelling and at times even profound. Plus, the script traffics in several interesting thematic elements:
* Identity: Who are you really? That question seems to be the subtext of much of what happens in the script. It’s most prominent with Walter and The Beaver, our attention bobbing back and forth from one to the other, trying to determine who is really behind what’s happening. But also Porter in grappling with his destiny (per his father’s dark shadow over him), Norah shifting gears in her path in response to her brother’s sudden death, Henry who moves from an almost invisible entity to a woodworking machine, Meredith whose soccer mom identity is challenged by living with a puppet wearing freak. So in sum after we read FADE OUT, the lingering question becomes one directed at the reader: Who are you?
* Legacy: Can Walter overcome his depression? Can Porter overcome his father’s dark shadow? Can Norah overcome the dark shadow of her brother’s death? Those legacy issues permeate each of these characters’ storylines.
* Box: And for me, this is the most interesting thematic element in the script — the idea of a box. There are boxes in evidence throughout the script: Boxes when Walter moves out, memory boxes that Henry builds, boxes when Meredith and the boys move out of the house, the box (coffin) Walter builds for The Beaver. But then there are more figurative boxes: How The Beaver boxes in Walter as The Beaver step-by-step takes over Walter’s life, the side-by-side boxes of Norah and her brother’s bedrooms, the box of Porter’s bedroom, one wall of which Porter pound his head in an effort to escape. A lot of times when you read a script, you don’t know if the writer was conscious of a theme or recurring set of images or not — they could have arisen from the writer’s unconscious. But I’ve got to believe that the writer knew that he was onto something with these recurring images of boxes.
I can see why Hwood readers liked the script so much. It’s a great read — clean pages, smart transitions, a nice narrative pull, several surprises in the plot, mature take on the material, and of course a compelling concept at its core. I can also see why no major studio made an offer on the script because of a core question: Will this concept fly with audiences? Even if Jim Carrey stars in the movie, might the buzz be, “Oh, no, it’s another one of his weird movies, not a really funny one,” and in the past, we’ve seen some of those movies tank at the box office. And despite the story’s American Beauty feel to it — a drama-comedy about American suburban life with satirical overtones — there is some distance between the subject matter and the emotional world created because of The Beaver. As it stands in the way between all the story’s characters and Walter, so too with the reader.
But this is a movie that deserves to get produced. I’m not sure if the script will get rewritten to address any of the concerns I pointed out (or others), but in a way, I’d be curious to see it get shot the way it’s written. I’d like to see if it works as is.