Genre: Thriller
Premise: A father takes a man he beleives is his daughter’s abductor for a little ride.
About: Snatched is a 2008 Nicholl winner.
Writer: Lee Patterson

I’ve covered a lot of scripts here on Scriptshadow. I’ve given you million dollar sales. I’ve given you Black List scripts. I’ve given you adaptations and reviews where I haven’t even read the script (clickhere for reference). But one script I haven’t given you is a Nicholl winner. For writers millions of miles away from Hollywood, winning a screenplay competition is their best bet at getting noticed. So I thought I’d show you exactly what a Nicholl-winning script looks like. Here is my review of Snatched.

You know Snatched has it going on after only a few pages. We learn that a young girl has gone missing. Her grade school teacher, Lewis, is devastated, as is everyone in the community. They all fear the worst. At the end of the school day a mysterious man, Jack, introduces himself to Lewis. Jack is the father of the missing girl and he’d simply like to talk to Lewis for a few minutes. For 15 pages, the two walk through the school, through Lewis’s classroom, vaguely discussing their personal ways of dealing with this horrible tragedy. But the genius of this scene is that everything that’s being said is secondary to everything that’s not being said.

Remember the scene in The Fugitive when Ford starts to realize that the cops aren’t asking him what he knows? They’re accusing him of killing his wife. Lewis realizes that there’s something similar going on here. So he makes up an excuse for having to leave early and ends the meeting with Jack. But when Lewis gets to his car, his tire is mysteriously flat. How convenient it is then, that he’s offered a ride by the passing Jack? Of course Lewis is hesitant, but Jack gives him a poor sob story that makes Lewis question whether he misread their earlier conversation. So he gets in the car. And Snatched begins.

We find out that Jack’s done his own investigation and he already knows who the kidnapper is. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Is Lewis, the most mild-mannered teacher in the history of grade school, the kidnapper? And if he is, is Jack’s daughter still alive? Can she be saved? It’s a smart decision by Patterson because it keeps Jack from wasting Lewis right then and there. Whether Lewis is the kidnapper/killer or not, he knows that that question is the only thing keeping him alive.

We’ve seen these vigalante justice scripts before. The damn things are becoming their own genre for Christ’s sake. But this one gets it right. If you enjoyed Prisoners (sadly, no longer in my Top 25), I can pretty much guarantee you’ll like Snatched.

There are a few areas I took issue with. There’s a scene where Lewis gets away and Jack must drive through a mall parking lot to find him in a high stakes game of hide-and-seek. I understand that in theory this might work. But you ask the audience to make a huge leap of faith when your “protagonist” gets into a heavily populated area and your “bad guy” throws all logical thinking out the window and chases him anyway. Obviously, you gotta change things up when 80% of your script takes place in a car. But this was a moment where I thought, even a crazy person would’ve cut his losses and left.

The biggest issue I had with the script, however, was that in end, we’re subjected to the old tape recorder trick. The one where the good guy is secretly recording the killer’s confession and then proudly shows him that “AH-HA! I WAS RECORDING YOU ALL ALONG!” I’m actually kind of baffled that writers still use this as it’s literally been used 10 billion times – 9 billion of those on 90210 and Melrose Place. Then again, what do I know? The Inside Man, one of the biggest heist flicks of all time, and Michael Clayton, a movie that was nominated for an academy award, both used the “tape recorder trick”. Maybe it’s me who’s the dummy for not using it.

Both of these were minor issues compared to what was otherwise a solid script. I think you guys will like this one. Check it out.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The power of subtext! Conversations are always more interesting when what people say and what they actually mean are two different things. The first fifteen pages of Snatched are a mastercourse in this technique. Pay attention to how the most innocent line can have a multitude of meanings when you realize that Jack is probing Lewis for information.

Genre: Period Drama/Adventure
Premise: A pair of thieves develop a scheme to steal the Mona Lisa in 1911 Paris.
About: “Thieves” has enjoyed semi-cult status in Hollywood as one of the better unproduced screenplays of the last 10 years. It was going to be made back in 2002 but fell apart at the last second. It’s gearing up to be shot again by the writer himself.
Writer: Jeremy Leven

The original celebrity

Well, I gave it a shot. The script’s pedigree and the fact that it was being championed by two of my friends convinced me I would fall in love with it. But alas, I did not. I wanted a story with an elaborate “Thomas Crowne Affair”-like plot to steal the Mona Lisa – I wanted people coordinating a series of impossibly timed maneuvers inside a small once-in-a-lifetime window. I wanted 1911 Mission Impossible. Instead I got a slightly above-average love story with characters I found mildly amusing.

Lovers, Liars and Thieves is a tough read. 6-7 line action paragraphs litter the script, testing your fortitude and making every page read likes it’s 3. I coulda swore I was on page 30 as I sludged through the opening act. When I looked up I found I was still on page 10! The writing is pretty. It’s just laborious and overly-detailed.

The story is about con artist/adventurer “The Marqui” and his partner in crime Daphne. The two are thick as thieves in the most literal sense and they luuuuuuuuv money. It’s clear right off the bat that they’re secretly in love each other. But both know that to give in to that love would mean the end of their edge. After their latest plan goes awry, however, Daphne decides she’s had enough and wants to retire. The Marquis suggests one last job – something so big they can spend the rest of their lives in luxury – the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Of course to pull off their plan they’ll need someone on the inside, and that person comes in the clumsy naive 60 year old cabinetmaker, Vincenzo. The plan is for Daphne to win over Vincenzo’s heart, then convince him to steal the Mona Lisa for her. That way even if he’s caught, they can hightail it out of town and let poor Vincenzo take the rap.

But that’s the problem I had with “Thieves”. Is that I wasn’t interested in that plan. I was more interested in the plan to steal the damn Mona Lisa! And that gets short shrift in the script. Instead we watch as Daphne starts to fall for Vincenzo, and The Marquis, who’s secretly in love with her of course, must make a choice. He can either call it all off before Daphne falls in love, thus ensuring they will be together. Or he can stay the course and land more money than he’s ever dreamed of. Money or love? That’s The Marquis question.

As I’ve alluded to, when the theft actually arrives, it’s quite simple, even bizarrely so. Vincenzo basically has to take the painting when the guards’ aren’t looking. I’m assuming that Leven’s betting by this point that we’ve developed more sympathy for Vincenzo, but to be honest I thought Vinenzo was the least interesting of the three and actually a big sad sap. Therefore I didn’t really care whether he got away with the theft or not. I would’ve been much more involved had The Marquis and Daphne been doing the stealing.

There are some fun moments along the way. For you period-heads and art historians you get a pre-fame over-sexed Picasso pushing his controversial new painting style. When the Mona Lisa goes missing, Picasso is one of the first ones questioned (Picasso is on record for hating the Mona Lisa and believing it should be burned). The Maquis trading quips with Daphne is enjoyable. The overall dialogue is impressive. There are gems like this one sprinkled all over the script:

You’re too hard on yourself, Daphné. The world was created with a tragic flaw. Many were given little, and a few were given too much — much too much. By an accident of fortune, we seem to have been blessed with a unique talent in asset reallocation.
I’ll even go on record as saying the structure and characters are written with an exceptional level of skill. So why didn’t I like this thing? I think it comes down to my expectations. I was expecting and hoping for something different. When I didn’t get it, I turned on the poor guy. This may have barely kept my interest, but it’s such a well-liked script I’m still going to recommend you check it out.

[ ] trash
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Forcing your main character to choose between the thing he wants most (in this case, money) and the thing he doesn’t realize he needs (in this case, love) is the cornerstone of any great character arc. Because in the end, he’ll have to make a decision between the two. If he chooses money, he’s still the same shallow person. Whereas if he chooses love, it shows that he’s changed (or “arced”). Most (but not all!) screenplays have a main character that arcs.

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama
Premise: A trio growing up in a boarding school discover they are clones grown for the sole purpose of organ donation.
About: Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) directs Keira Knightly in this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel. Garland wrote The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. So if you liked any of those scripts, this might interest you.
Writer: Alex Garland

Never Let Me Go is a moving tale about a group of individuals who discover they will only live 1/3 of the life the rest of us do. The premise itself is unimpressive. Organ harvesting storylines dominated the headlines in the late 90s/early 2000s, culminating in the criminally bad Michael Bay directed sci-fi flick “The Island” – which curiously didn’t have anything to do with an island. But it’s the way the subject matter’s addressed here that ultimately saves the script.

A group of friends attend a boarding school that treats its inhabitants like royalty except for a few rules. Anger is discouraged. Diet is strict. And life is ordered. There’s an odd haunting quality about the place, as if we’re living in the world’s most beautiful coffin. Which, for all intents and purposes, we are.

Ruth and Kathy are frenimies. Ruth is the pretty one. She gets all the attention from the boys. And Kathy is the bookish introspective one (who will be played by Knightley when she’s older). Tommy, the third member of this group, is a handsome boy with anger issues. We observe this complicated relationship as it evolves over the course of their stay at the school. Kathy confides in Ruth that she likes Tommy and it’s clear that Ruth is jealous of their connection. So what does Ruth do? What any good frenimy would do. She asks Tommy out. The two, who couldn’t be more wrong for each other, begin a long relationship, fueled by Ruth’s desire to keep Kathy away from Tommy.

There aren’t a lot of twists and turns in Never Let Me Go. The kids are told of their fate early on. Their organs will be harvested, one or two at a time, and after the third harvesting, somewhere in their 20s, they will die. But they’re taught that it’s their duty. So while under normal circumstances you’d expect anger or resentment. There is none of that here. Only acceptance.

After school, the organ-crew is allowed out into the real world, and our dysfunctional trio separates, only to meet up again in their early 20s, with Ruth near death, Tommy two donations down, and Kathy still yet to have her first donation. The three try to make up for past mistakes but find that it might be too late.

What was unclear to me is if this was happening in the future or if it was happening in some sort of alternate history. The harvesting is so frank, so non-secretive, that I figured we had to be in a hell of a far-off future. Yet the story had a very contemporary feel to it – so it was difficult to figure out just where we were. I was curious as to why a world would allow something like this to happen. Would a country like England really be okay with killing people for organs?

Never Let Me Go poses some interesting questions. The idea that these people know they’re only living a portion of a life and are okay with that is the big one. But while we feel sorry for them, they don’t feel sorry for themselves. And it’s that fearless approach that keeps this from spiraling into Depressingville. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still dark stuff. It’s just a unique way to approach the material. For that reason, it’s worth checking out.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: One of the most tried and true formulas in storytelling is the love triangle. It can be used in any genre and as long as you make each of the individual characters compelling, it almost always works.

Genre: Drama
Premise: A man moves into war-torn Sarajevo hoping to get over his girlfriend’s death. At first just an observer, he gradually becomes an active participant in trying to end the war.
About: Last I heard, Liam Neeson, Orlando Bloom, and Javier Bardem were to star. The script is based on the real-life experiences of Bill Carter living in Sarajevo during the war. It also landed near the middle of the 2007 Black List, which is the same year it sold.
Writer: Bill Carter (revisions by Jordan Roberts)

not exactly the Hollywood sign

It’s hard to get excited about these “Untitled” projects. They feel like rejected versions of themselves. Like they weren’t good enough for a title. “It’s untitled,” I think. “How good can it be?” I guess somewhere along the way “Untitled Bill Carter Project” begrudgingly accepted the title “Fools Rush In” to appease people like me. Although accepting a title that sounds like Sandra Bullock’s next romantic comedy doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

You might remember this script from Geoff Latulippe’s interview when he said it was the best script he had ever read while at New Line. After finally conquering my “untitled” fear, I called this sucker up to see if it belonged in the big leagues.

To say the plot of Bill Carter’s memoir is unusual is a bit of an understatement. For the most part, writers writing spec scripts are encouraged to tell a clear story, with character objectives and plot points that are laid out in an easily digestible order. The direction of Untitled Bill Carter is anything but clear and it’s far from digestible. Actually, I would call this the exact opposite of what you’d normally do when writing a spec. And yet somehow, after it’s all over, it works in its own odd charming way.

Bill Carter is a young man in love. He and his girlfriend, Corinna, are hiking through the Redwood Forest when we first meet them. They’re at that perfect stage of the relationship – right after casual and just before serious. Everything is perfect, nothing you ever do is wrong, and the possibilities the future holds seem endless. This opening scene is beautifully written and sets up the emotional undercurrent that drives the rest of the story. We know these two were meant to be together forever.

HARD CUT to SPLIT-CROATIA, two years later. Bill is as unkempt as an Atlantic City street corner (if you haven’t been, trust me, that’s bad). And at the moment, he happens to be fucking an overweight Croatian prostitute (if you haven’t had one, trust me, that’s bad). The jarring transition leads into the revelation that Corrina is dead. And since her death, Bill has been drifting from country to country trying to forget her.

way too many jokes to make here

Split (pun intended?) is about as far away from the Redwoods as you can get. And that’s exactly how Bill likes it. He wakes up every day more depressed and more hopeless than the previous. He has no job, nothing to eat. What little money he has comes from selling drugs, something that will get you into deep shit in Split. Yet Bill doesn’t care. It’s almost as if he wants to get caught. His friends plead for him to come back home and it’s only after he’s spent his last dollar that he realizes he has no other choice. Bill will do anything to not go home. Maybe even end his life.

That night though, Bill runs into a crazy drunken orange-haired Englishman named Graeme. The two strike up an odd friendship and Graeme offers Bill a job. “Doing what?” Bill asks. Graeme just smiles. Bill will have to find out for himself. Things only get stranger when Bill is introduced to Graeme’s crew, a multi-cultural band of vagabonds, a motley bunch if there ever was one. All Bill knows is that they call themselves the “Serious Road Trip” and that there’s a picture of the Road Runner on the side of their truck. Not exactly the most accepting bunch, when Bill waffles they unsympathetically tell him he can either get on or get out. Bill gets on. But he has no idea how much his life’s about to change.

Bill’s more than a little concerned when they cross into Bosnia, where – oh yeah – there’s a war going on. Checkpoints with armed soldiers and towns shattered by mortar fire are the norm. Before he can get acclimated, they’re already stopping in their first town. Someone throws Bill a clown nose and green wig and pushes him into a mob of children. “Dance!” they scream. “Do something funny!” What the hell is going on?? The rest of the group have also thrown on their clown-suits and are entertaining the kids. It turns out The Serious Road Trip is a group of clowns that go into war-ravaged towns, offering entertainment and food to people. This is all the more delicious when you take into account that all the members are drug-addicted psychopaths!

They make it to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s largest city, and use it as their main outpost, shipping food to places that everyone else is too afraid to go. While at first overwhelming to Bill – keep in mind that going to the corner store can get you shot – he finds a sort of inner peace in all the chaos. It’s almost as if the constant threat of death is better than even the most fleeting thought of his Corrina.

Bill becomes friends with a lot of the locals, particularly a young Bosnian girl who is impossibly happy and optimistic despite the dire circumstances. When the war continues to get worse, even the die-hards say ‘seeya!’ One by one “The Serious Road Trip” members pack up and go, until there’s only Bill left. This fearlessness and loyalty impresses the locals and they begin to see Bill as something more – someone who has the potential to bring change to their country. Unaccustomed to any kind of leadership role, Bill shies away at first. It’s not until a televised U2 concert that he comes up with a radical idea. In a twist that no reader in reader history will anticipate, Bill decides to go to U2 and ask them for help!

Yes, you actually read that correctly. Bill hunts down U2. Cooking up some cockamamie story about being a reporter, he cons U2’s assistant into meeting Bono before a concert. He makes a case for himself and to his surprise, Bono actually agrees to help. He’ll do a satellite link-up to Sarajevo before all of his concerts, spreading awareness of the war. And if I’m to understand this right, this actually fucking happened!

There are a lot of touching moments in Fools Rush In. From the constant dreams of Corrina, to the friendships in Sarajevo cut short by death, to the camaraderie with the other men in the group. It’s these characters that elevate Fools Rush In from your average spec to something real and alive. It really does seem like we’re Bill, drifting through these crazy experiences that are indescribable out of context.

The script has its share of faults, though most of them are minor. The biggest problem, I believe, is that we spend too much time in Sarajevo, particularly towards the second half of the script. We’ve seen Bill’s despair from page 4, so to push him further and further down the hole becomes almost masochistic. Plus it’s repetitive and somewhat boring. I think that part can be quickened up a bit with a little chop-chop.

This script won’t be for everyone because the subject matter is fairly dark. But if you give it a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] pretty damn good
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Fools Rush In eschews the traditional 3-Act structure, which makes it a bit of an anomaly. So why does it still work? Well, in any spec script, you have to do at least one thing exceptionally, whether that’s structure or dialogue or imagination or, in this case, character. From the first page, Carter creates two characters that you fall in love with and care for. And from that point on, he never stops creating characters that are interesting, eccentric, or unforgettable. What do you do in your script that’s exceptional?

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: A plane is abducted by an alien ship.
About: Dreamworks bought this in late March. Len Wiseman (Underworld) will produce and Patrick Tatopoulos will direct. ICM, who represents all parties, packaged the deal.
Writer: Michael Gilvary

More aliens!

First of all, I want to personally thank the person who sent me this. I have a similar idea about a plane that encounters an alien ship, and as all of us writers do when we hear of a similar idea to our own (especially one that’s sold), we want to see how they executed it.

If you’ve read my “Alien arrival” reviews before, you’ll know that I preach about the inherent problem with the genre. The movies are always top heavy because the anticipation of the aliens is always more exciting than the actuality of the aliens (with maybe War of The Worlds being the exception). Part of the problem is that we’ve seen it all. Until someone comes up with a different take, it’s usually a bunch of reptilian or bug-like creatures who want to take over earth. This happens in almost every one of these films. Remember Independence Day before we saw the aliens? It was actually a cool movie. Then the alien pops out, Will Smith yells “Hell naw” and everything goes to shit. “Signs” understood this problem to an extent, which is why it’s one of the better movies in the genre (don’t get me started on that ending though). And “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” is probably the best of the bunch because it knows that once the alien’s out of the bag, there’s no more suspense, which is why it waits til the very last scene to reveal them.

Enter Non-stop, which at the very least attempts to do something different. Instead of aliens falling on our precious planet, they take to the air and hijack one of our planes (actually, they hijack a lot of planes). The script starts off quite good. Matt, a handsome guy, is followed into the airport by his clingy mother, who’s trying to make sure he gets to the plane okay. Matt is 30. Their banter is hilarious. While just about everybody in the airport listens, mom asks Matt if he’s sure he’s going to be okay. It’s a cute little moment which instantly gives us sympathy for our lead.

From there we move quickly into the first class cabin of our doomed flight and meet the other main characters, MILF Marriane and her daughter Laney. Through limited conversation we learn that Matt lost his wife to a carjacking. He had a choice to stay in the car and protect her or get out and save himself. He chose to save himself – setting up the fact that he’s a selfish dickhead.

Liftoff. Ding. You may now roam around the cabin. Except they’re not in the air 10 minutes before BANG, a large JOLT rocks the plane. After more bumps, a lot more confusion, and a freefall of death, the plane suddenly stops – yes stops - and they’re still okay. Have they landed? What happened? What’s going on? Looking outside they realize they’re in some endless cavern. Since there’s nothing else to do, a few of the more brave passengers leave to look around (because yeah, that’s what I would do). It turns out to be a bad idea as within minutes we hear their screams of terror.

Taking a page from Aliens (if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best) curious little Laney, the daughter, sneaks off the plane to go exploring. This forces Marrienne and Matt to go look for her. They make their way through the cavern until they eventually find the other passengers being toyed with in some kind of torture chamber (and not the good kind).

This was the point where I lost interest in Non-stop. To take this neat idea and boil it down to aliens that are torturing/testing humans feels a bit uninspired. The rest of the script basically follows Matt and Marrienne looking for Lacy and a way off the ship. Even though there was no cell service in the ship, I’m not convinced that Matt didn’t find a way to call Peter from Dubai (see this review for reference), because out of nowhere he becomes some sort of superhero, wrestling aliens to decisive victories. Matt designs satellites by the way.

Matt’s old flaw kicks in when he must decide whether to save the few of them (the easy way out) or save the whole plane (a lot tougher). Unfortunately it never quite works because while Matt may have committed a selfish act in the past, he never comes off as selfish here on the ship. He seems like a genuinely good guy. The transformation is lost as a result.

There are some cool parts, including the discovery of thousands of aliens from different planets being held in containment bays that Matt decides to open. A melee of alien madness follows that I can only imagine will be a blast to watch onscreen. But the core story of Matt and Marienne chasing Laney feels really flat. Let’s hope they fix it in the rewrites.

Script link: Nonstop (script taken down at the request of writer)

[ ] trash
[x] barely kept my interest

[ ] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I learned: Go a step further. Why are 99% of aliens in movies reptilian or bug-like? Because writers are used to it and don’t bother pushing themselves. Come up with something different that no one’s ever seen before. You’ll be rewarded and respected for your originality.