Premise: (from Black List) The true story of Marvin Glass, brilliant, charismatic, self-loathing, paranoid, demanding – and probably the greatest toy inventor of all time.
About: Mr. Toy finished on the low end of last year’s Black List. Chai Hecht made the Black List before in 2014, with his script, “In Real Time,” about a brother’s attempt to save his suicidal’s sister’s life by recreating her high school prom. I didn’t love that script, but it’s good to see that Hecht is still churning out material. Remember, you have to keep creating content. You never know which of your ideas is going to be the one that people fall in love with. Dan Brown wrote three books (all of which sold less than 10,000 copies) before he wrote The DaVinci Code, which sold 80 million copies.
Writer: Chai Hecht
Details: 111 pages
Memorial Day Weekend is usually a time of reflection. Which it definitely was for two studios this weekend, Disney and Paramount, as their films, “Pirates” and “Baywatch,” drowned under the weight of their seafaring subject matter, leaving the presidents who greenlit them scratching the red, white, and blue off their heads.
Baywatch’s failure was the more obvious of the two. Don’t studios know that audiences no longer buy cheesy old shows repurposed into comedy features anymore? The oddest thing about Baywatch is whoever decided to approve its R rating. The original Baywatch was harmless fun. Why alienate millions of dollars of potential business for what I’m guessing is access to a few more swear words? Not that Baywatch was going to be a hit at PG-13, but I guarantee it would’ve made more money.
The new Pirates had a fun trailer, but this franchise has run out of peg-legs. I believe audiences are fine with studios and their money-hoarding ways AS LONG AS EVERYONE IS COMMITTED TO MAKING A GREAT FILM. The second we feel like you don’t care anymore? That’s when we don’t care anymore. And that’s what’s happened to Pirates.
Speaking of franchises, the biopic has turned into its own franchise – a never-ending train of biographies on a one-way track to Oscar Nomi-station. But with so many lives being documented, it’s become harder and harder to stand out. Let’s see if a toy-maker can locate the genre’s secret sauce.
Marvin Glass grew up in my wonderful home state of Illinois in the 1920s and had the unfortunate luck of being born to the worst father in existence, a verbally abusive man, who, when he discovered that Marvin had a talent for making toys, made it clear to him that men don’t make toys.
Perhaps that explains why, when Marvin graduated from college, he decided to become a painter. And he was pretty good at it, if not good enough to sell anything yet. Painting is where he met his wife, Dorothy, who was a model in one of his classes, and the two quickly had a child, a girl.
With the pressure to provide, Marvin was forced into the toy-making business, where he quickly built that famous wind-up “chattering teeth” toy, choosing to take a quick 400 bucks rather than hold on to the licensing rights. Marvin thought nothing of the deal. But when the item became one of the hottest selling toys ever, it would teach Marvin a valuable lesson. It’s better to play the long game than the short one.
This led to Marvin pioneering a way to sell toys that had never been done before – inventor royalties. He would sell the toy rights to the big companies then take a cut in perpetuity (I learned that word on Shark Tank!).
After someone stole one of Marvin’s idea, Marvin became obsessed with secrecy – turning into the Christopher Nolan of the toy industry. He built a fortress, blacked out the windows, and changed all the locks in his building every three weeks. He then introduced another new concept into the business – an NDA. His customers were not allowed to see his prototypes without first signing a waiver saying they wouldn’t steal his idea.
Throughout all of this, Marvin became insufferable, an asshole, and obsessed with making as much money as possible, ironic since he started out his career hating money. It was argued that Marvin hated his life so much (he’s famously quoted as saying: “I consider myself a complete and utter failure.”) because he pursued a profession he despised. Which, I guess, is the lesson of this story? Although there’s so much going on in Mr. Toy, I can’t be sure of that.
Let’s go over our “What Your Biopic Needs to Be Great” checklist.
1) Fascinating subject – If you don’t have this, don’t bother writing a biopic. That means someone who’s unique or strange or fucked up or had an incredibly complex life, good or bad (preferably both). Look at the biopic about the DHL guy. After he died, they found out he’d had basically been a pedophile all his life who had impregnated numerous young girls. That’s as fucked up as it gets.
2) A great character – More than any other genre, character exploration in a biopic has to be on point. That means inner conflict. It means a clearly defined flaw. It means vices (alcohol, drugs, women). Irony is strongly rewarded (a comedian suffering from depression). These movies are about exploring the inner life as much as the outer.
3) A fresh angle – A fresh angle in the biopic department pretty much means anything besides a linear cradle-to-grave story, as that’s the most obvious route one can go. Predictability is the enemy of all great movies. And there’s nothing more predictable than going cradle-to-grave in a biopic.
4) A great story – Just like non-biopics, a biopic needs to have a great story. It can’t just be a checklist of scenes that occurred during someone’s life. You should try and add GSU. You should try and add three acts. There should be compelling revelations, unexpected developments, drama, suspense, and, overall, a story that’s interesting. For whatever reason, biopics want to be boring. Their nature is to be the script version of someone’s Wikipedia page. So you have to work against that to find your story.
How does Mr. Toy stack up in all these areas? Let’s take a look.
Mr. Toy is interesting in that he hates toys and he hates what he does, despite being so good at it. But I wouldn’t call him fascinating. His biggest career achievement seems to be pioneering royalties for toy makers. Unfortunately, numbers on a spreadsheet don’t translate well into film. Nobody’s pining for a scene where Marvin negotiates an extra percentage point on his deal.
A GREAT CHARACTER
There was a lot going on with Marvin for sure. He hated toys. He hated money. Yet he still focused on those things above his own flesh and blood, as his wife left him and his daughter despised him. However, this complexity was often more confusing than compelling. I couldn’t figure out why a man who hated money so much wanted it so badly. There was never a moment that linked those two conflicting ideologies together. By the end of the script, he’s trying to live like Hugh Hefner, yet he says numerous times he hates money and everything it represents.
A FRESH ANGLE
This was a straight cradle to grave biopic, so no freshness involved. The great thing about a fresh angle is that it can hide a lot of a script’s imperfections. Fresh takes are becoming harder and harder to find in this genre since it’s so crowded. But you have to be inventive. Arron Sorkin built Steve Jobs around three major product launches. It can be done.
There didn’t seem to be a structure here, so the script wandered for awhile as we got to know Marvin over the early part of his career. The script picked up, however, when Hecht added a goal – Marvin needed to come up with a new toy or lose his floundering company. All of a sudden, we had a goal, we had stakes, we had urgency. But above all, we had structure. The problem? This didn’t happen until page 70. Had we introduced some sort of plot earlier, Mr. Toy would’ve been a lot more focused.
This is the thing with biopics. Since they don’t naturally fit into the 3-Act structure, writers try to wing it. Just fill up the space with the person’s life and everything else will sort itself out. But storytelling doesn’t work that way. It needs a series of destinations to keep the story on track. And I couldn’t ever figure out where this one wanted to go.
I wanted to like it. There is something deliciously ironic about adults who make toys. But Mr. Toy never got there for me.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: To find a fresh angle for your biopic, look for inspiration within the character himself. For example, if you’re documenting a cartoonist, tell the entire story inside one of his cartoons. If you’re documenting someone who died of Alzheimer’s, tell the story out of order, the way they remember things. If you’re documenting a famous silent film actor, write a silent film. Just don’t write cradle-to-grave unless the life perfectly fits into the 3-Act structure and is amazing as is. Or – OR! – do write a 3-act structure if you’re documenting a famous screenwriter. And have the screenwriter admit to the audience that he knows you hate cradle-to-grave biopics but he’s going to tell you one anyway. Have fun with it. But always, above all else, be creative.
Memorial Day Weekend Consultation Deal!!! – Got a script that needs help? Tired of getting notes from friends like, “What does ‘EXT.’ mean?” Let me do what I do best: Break down your script, figure out what’s wrong with it, and tell you how to fix it. If you purchase notes from me this weekend, I’m offering $150 off feature consultations and $100 off pilot consultations. Just e-mail me at Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line, “MEMORIAL DAY.” You don’t need to send your script to me right away. You only need to purchase the notes by weekend’s end. That would be MONDAY 11:59pm Pacific Time!
Now, it’s time for everyone’s favorite screenwriting battle royale. The Hunger Games ain’t got nothing on Amateur Offerings. Kids may die in that sport. But here, screenwriting dreams die, which everyone knows is way worse. The good news is, one script will rise from the ashes, win the weekend, and get a Scriptshadow review next Friday. If the script is reviewed well, industry people usually notice. And if a script is awesome, I can guarantee something will come of it. So, let’s look at this week’s contenders!
If you’re new to Amateur Offerings, read as much of each script as possible then VOTE for your favorite in the comments section. This is also a wonderful opportunity to give writers feedback so they can get better. So feel free to let writers know, constructively, where you had troubles with their scripts and why.
Voting is open UNTIL MONDAY NIGHT on this one, all the way through the holiday weekend. I’ll be back with a script review on Tuesday. GOOD LUCK!
Title: No Other Way
Logline: When his girlfriend and daughter are mistakenly slaughtered by a gang of Neo-Nazis, an ordinary, stay home dad with no particular set of skills, goes on a mission of revenge.
Why You Should Read: In an attempt to improve my skills as a writer, I put the high concept ideas on hold for a while and decided it was best to write a script with a simple concept while trying to make it as readable and exciting as possible. This meant a fast paced story with short, high intensity scenes, good characters and an appropriate amount of risk taking where the average writer wouldn’t. In this vein, I think what I have managed to produce is a tight action/thriller with a enough uniqueness to keep you reading until the end… enjoy :)
Title: Know Thy Neighbor
Logline: While on vacation, a recently divorced psychologist sees his attractive new neighbor on a missing poster, but instead of turning her in, he conducts his own investigation into her mysterious past and endangers both their lives.
Why You Should Read: They say always be open to concepts from anywhere in your daily life. The idea for this Hitchcockian thriller hit me while waiting in a very long line at the post office. There was a row of missing posters on the wall. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I recognized one of the victims, but I was wrong. For days, I wondered what it would be like to see a new friend on a missing poster. What would I do? Would I turn them in? Confront them myself? Or watch them from afar and try to unravel their secret? The idea stayed with me for months until I created an outline and wrote the script. Long live AOW!
Genre: Gritty Action/Superhero/Revenge
Logline: An aspiring reporter manipulates a seemingly indestructible vigilante into becoming a superheroine in order to stop the Russian mafia from selling a Cold War nerve agent to a megalomaniac.
Why You Should Read: Hello, with all the regurgitation of superhero movies these days, I took a stab at some different angles with the intent to create a new, adult, superhero IP. Please consider giving my project a shot at a review. Thank you Carson and of course, the SS community, for all of your valuable feedback over the years.
Logline: In the midst of a deadly bushfire season, a petty criminal with a fascination for fire becomes entangled in a game of cat and mouse with a desperate arson squad detective while attempting to save his one, true friend.
Why You Should Read: The Black Saturday bushfires occurred in my home state of Victoria, Australia in 2009 and killed 173 people. It was Australia’s deadliest natural disaster and I still distinctly remember the atmosphere on that day – you could actually feel the death in the air. I’ve often been drawn to thinking about the people involved that day – both those fighting and investigating the blazes and the pyromaniacs who helped exacerbate them. While this story is set a little while later, the memories of that day remain an inspiration.
Logline: A scientist desperate to kill the elusive desert monster that maimed him, needs it to eat an unwitting team of soldiers, scientists and college students he embedded with tracking devices before it disappears for another seven years.
Why You Should Read: I love this script. It reminds me of the fun I had watching Creature Feature Saturdays. After winning the TableReadMyScreenplay Horror competition it’s just been parked on my laptop. What else do I need to do to get a production company to Green Light it? The Scriptshadow following may have the answers. Thank you in advance. I look forward to your notes and insight.
Logline (from writer): A home-invading female serial killer stalks a true crime author whom she wants to write her bloody life story.
Why You Should Read (from writer): The most famous home invader in all of fairy tale history has never gotten her own movie. This is a modern take on one of the most globally recognized public domain characters that Hollywood hasn’t cracked. The script was a Finalist in two screenwriting contests: Fresh Blood Selects & Search for New Blood 3. For this new Amateur Friday draft, I took the AOW notes to heart and trimmed down the opening pages and minimized the early voiceover.
Writer: Brett Martin
Details: 99 pages (note: This is a new draft that was sent to me tonight! So it’s hot off the presses and different from the drafts you guys read on Amateur Offerings).
Today’s Amateur Offerings winner got a big reaction out of me.
At times I was impressed. Other times I was angry. Sometimes I was intrigued. A number of times I was disgusted. A lot of times I was frustrated.
Whichever way you look at it, I was feeing something while reading this.
The important question, however, is “Was the ultimate feeling a good one?” And I’m still not sure I know the answer to that. Because there were times where I felt this script was more about the writer than it was about the story being told. It felt like Brett so badly wanted to put his mark on this that the story may have ended up playing second fiddle.
Despite that opinion, the script definitely has a voice. It doesn’t fall victim to the “Seventy-Five Percenters” curse, which is a term I use to describe the 75% of scripts I read that are so average, I forget about them the second I put them down. Goldie does what a script should do – it makes you remember it.
But remember it how?
The plot follows our title character, Goldie, a 20-something hot blonde who likes to murder families in her spare time, particularly units with a mom, dad, and blonde daughter. So, suffice it to say, she has issues.
Goldie’s latest obsession is a woman named Sara Berenson, the author of a best seller who’s reached a bout of writer’s block so crippling that she hasn’t written a word in months. Sara likes to do the Stephen King thing, leaving her family in the city while she writes at a remote cottage. And right now, she’s up there trying (and failing) to force out her next masterpiece.
Goldie google maps Sara, pitches a tent in the forest, and starts watching her from afar, learning her routine and looking for a way to integrate herself into Sara’s life. She finds a local hunter, Peter, and pays him to scare Sara while she’s out riding her bike. Then, just before Peter and his buddies can “hurt” Sara, Goldie comes swooping in and “saves” her.
Once back at Sara’s place, Goldie admits she knows Sara is a best-selling novelist and came up to these parts looking for her. Sara is predictably creeped out, but this Goldie girl did save her, so she allows her to stick around. Eventually, Goldie pitches a book to Sara about a young woman who goes around killing families.
For reasons that remain unclear, Sara doesn’t consider the possibility that the creepy weird fan who admitted she stalked her up into the woods might be the very psychopath Goldie’s “story” is about.
In the interim, the girls must fend off a slew of horny men who include Sara’s secret lover, Rick, and Peter’s hunting buddies. Rest assured, there is a lot of bloody slaughtering that goes on. All of which needs to be taken care of before Sara’s family comes to visit and she can finally finish this book and move on.
Brett’s done something I’ve been telling everyone to consider – take the fairy tale genre and flip it on its head. Now, to be honest, this isn’t what I imagined when I said that. But maybe that’s a good thing. If it’s what I expected, then the idea probably isn’t fresh enough.
Brett also takes a lot of chances here. I mean, things get weird. We’ve got a fairy tale heroine who masturbates to photos of happy families. And that’s just the appetizer. I’m not surprised at all that this kicked ass in a couple of horror screenwriting contests. The writing is bold and strong.
With that said, a couple of issues kept popping up while I was reading. The biggest of which was that the writing felt like it was trying too hard. This script became more about shocking you than it did about telling a good story.
The family photo masturbation is one example. There’s also a moment where Goldie breaks the fourth wall and tells us she’s going to kill us if we tell anyone her secret. There’s a moment where we inhabit the body of someone Goldie brutally slaughters. There’s a moment where Sara, who, up until that point was, at worst, a cheater, becomes sexually turned on when she sees Goldie torturing a man to death.
I just felt like the writer was asking the question: How can I best shock the audience in this moment? Rather than: How can I milk the most drama out of this sequence? How can I illicit the most emotion out of this scene?
Remember that shock is just that – shock. It lasts for a second then it’s gone. So it’s not a great screenwriting tool to utilize. As a screenwriter, you want to look for tools that keep the reader’s interest over an extended period of time. That’s why suspense is such a great concept to learn. You can use it to draw a reader in over 20-30 pages if you do it right.
Another thing I had an issue with was that the characters didn’t act like real people. They acted like movie characters.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Why would Goldie immediately tell Sara that she knows who she is and drove out into the wilderness to find her? You’ve just put your “target” on Terrorist Threat Alert Level 10. You might as well have worn a shirt that said, “I’m a crazy stalker who might kill you.” It would’ve made a lot more sense for Goldie to feign ignorance about who Sara was, then work her scheme in once she gained Sara’s trust.
As for Sara, I repeatedly asked why she was allowing this girl who was clearly a psychopath to stay with her. Goldie would scream at Sara, threaten her family, tell Sara she wished she had been gang-raped by Peter and his friends. Yet one scene later, Sara would be allowing Goldie back into her good graces.
True, there were times where there were extenuating circumstances (Goldie rushing to Sara’s defense when the man she was having an affair with was trying to rape her) but those scenes were so manufactured (How did Rick go from a casual affair to an obsessed rapist?) that you knew the only reason they were there was to create a scenario by which Sara giving Goldie another chance made sense.
This is something we don’t talk about a lot because these are the nuances of screenwriting and the nuances of screenwriting don’t have fancy names like “inciting incident” or “mid-point twist.” They’re mostly about feel. And where the mistakes are made in “feel” is when the writer wants something to happen so badly that he’s willing to look past a truthful moment in order to get the plot to where he needs it to go.
And that’s the thing that ultimately kept me from investing in this script. It was more about the writer than it was about writing a believable great story.
My advice to Brett, if he wants to write another draft, is to drop the gimmicks and the shocks. Instead, focus on writing a great story. Even if you made that one change of Goldie not telling Sara she knew who she was, you’d have a good 20-30 pages driven entirely by dramatic irony – the fact that we know Goldie is dangerous but Sara does not.
And really get into your characters’ heads and try to be truthful. Don’t write the movie scene. Write what people would really do. Because, right now, the swings in emotion (a character hates another character one second, then four dialogue lines later, they’re best friends again) just aren’t realistic. And the reason for that is you’re not treating these characters like real people. You’re treating them like pawns.
I hope you take all this to heart, Brett. You’re one of the most positive guys out there. And you clearly have talent. It’s just tweaks in the way you approach the writing that are going to pay dividends. Good luck!
Script link: Goldie (newest draft)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: One of the biggest problems I notice in the amateur scripts I’ve read lately is writers don’t treat their characters like real people. If a character is about to get shot, they’d rather write a cool move line (“Go ahead, do it”) than ask what that character would really feel and really say in that moment. In other words: THE TRUTH. Look, you have some creative license to massage reality in storytelling. And there are certain projects that are built around being unrealistic. But for the most part, you should look to be truthful. Because the more you manipulate reality to fit your writing agenda, the less we’re going to believe in what’s happening.
I once read a script that started off with a courtroom scene. A dirty cop was being tried for shooting a young man. Meanwhile, another cop (we’ll call him “Officer Jake”) who was friends with the victim’s family, and who had known the victim, was called in as a character witness, to make a case that the young man who had been killed was a good guy and that he never would’ve done anything to warrant being shot. Officer Jake made his case on the stand, but the scene ended with the jury ruling in favor of the dirty cop, and both the family and Officer Jake left the courtroom devastated.
I want you to think about that scene for a second. How does it make you feel? Is it a good scene? A bad one? Do you feel like an adequate amount of drama was mined from that situation?
The reason I bring this up is because this is the kind of scene most writers write. It’s not a bad scene. But nor is it a scene that makes an impact. And this is something you should always be thinking about as a screenwriter. Is your scene just “there” or is it making an impact?
So how could we improve this scene to make it an “impact scene?” Well, here’s what I suggested to the writer. Keep Officer Jake’s relationship with the victim’s family the same. Make them very close. However, this time, make it so Officer Jake works in the same precinct as the cop on trial, and have their Captain force Officer Jake to be a character witness for the dirty cop – “take one for the team,” if you will.
Notice how all of a sudden, this scene becomes a lot better. We’re no longer experiencing something obvious. We’re experiencing something traumatizing. A character is being forced to help a man go free who he knows is guilty of murder in front of the family of the victim who he’s good friends with.
Think about how that scene plays out now. How Officer Jake has to force every lying word out of his mouth to help a man he despises, all while betraying his friends, who are staring him down from the audience.
So how do you create a scene like this? What’s the magic formula?
There are three parts to it. Let’s start with the first one. Don’t give your character something they want to do. Force them to do something they don’t. The idea here is that if your character is ever comfortable in a scene, it’s probably not a good scene (unless you’re setting up the character for a later fall – but that’s another discussion).
So let’s say your character, Nick, goes to a party he’s been looking forward to for awhile. If that party is comfortable every step of the way? You’re not doing your job as a writer. So maybe you have his evil ex-wife show up. Now the party is anything but comfortable, as our character has to navigate around the party to avoid her.
That’s screenwriting 101 stuff there.
Let’s move on to the second part – UP THE STAKES. Remember that nothing bad you do to your character is that bad if the stakes are low. In the scene I highlighted at the beginning of the article, a man is either going to prison for rest of his life or get away with murder. The stakes are very high.
So if we stay with our party theme, we might tweak it so that the party is now a networking event and Nick needs to land a big client who’s going to be there. Now that there’s something to lose, the scene has a bit more weight. His ex-wife isn’t just an annoying presence. She could screw up the deal.
Finally, we have our third component. And this, my friends, is the secret sauce – the thing that really makes these scenes impactful. Wanna know what it is?
MAKE IT PERSONAL
In my first example, that scene doesn’t play the same if Officer Jake isn’t friends with the family or if the family isn’t there at the trial. What makes the scene work is his personal relationship with the family and the fact that he has to betray them right in front of their eyes.
So, in our “party” scene, an option might be for Nick to finally make his way to the company he’s trying to land as a client, only to see, at the last second, his ex-wife step up. He then realizes that she works for the company he has to land, which means he has to suck up to the very woman he hates more than anything to get the deal done.
I’m not in love with that option. I’d probably keep working on it until I found something better. But that’s the idea behind the formula. Force your character to do things they don’t want to do. Up the stakes if possible. And turbo charge it by making it personal.
Another famous example of this is The Good Wife. A wife who sacrificed her life to support her State’s Attorney husband finds out he’s been cheating on her over the years with dozens of hookers. She hates this man more than anything. Yet she’s asked to stand next to him at a news conference and tell the world that she supports him and still loves him. That’s the essence of this device. A woman who has to support a great husband? Boring. A woman who has to support a terrible one? Impactful.
Just remember that if Sophie doesn’t have to make a choice, you don’t have a scene.
If you’re looking for notes on your latest script, I offer screenplay consultations. If you want me to break down your script and tell you how to fix it, e-mail me at Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line “CONSULTATION” and we’ll get started!
Premise: After a lonely young woman is murdered, she awakens as one of the “Goners,” a group of outcasts who struggle to deal with their post-life existence.
About: Joss Whedon had such a terrible experience directing the Avengers sequel that he disappeared from the public eye for two years. Whedon finally arrived out of his cave a month ago, announcing he’d be taking on the feature adaptation of Batgirl. Then, just this week, it was announced that Whedon would be taking over directing duties (mainly post) on Justice League due to a tragedy in the Snyder family. Whedon joins this week’s Alien theme, as he happens to be the writer of Alien: Resurrection. Today’s Whedon script was written in 2005, which would place it two years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer finished its run. It never got made, and we’re going to find out today if it should’ve.
Writer: Joss Whedon
Details: 120 pages
Whedon is an interesting writer. I’ve always seen him as a guy who thrives in the television format but struggles in the feature department. Look no further than the project he brought to both mediums, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy was a dud on the big screen but a downright phenomenon on television. That can’t be coincidence.
Regardless of whether you like or hate Whedon’s style, there’s no denying he creates an insane obsession with his fans. And, really, that’s all you’re looking for as a writer. You’re trying to find that fanbase. You’re never going to make everyone happy. But if you write in a unique voice and find stories that you tell well, you’ll find a group of people who love your stuff.
Mia is a 30-something lonely cubicle worker whose only happiness comes from her cat, Bonkers. So when Mia’s co-worker, Joanne, invites Mia out for drinks, her first instinct is to blow her off. But then, when she goes to pick Bonkers up from the vet that night, she’s informed that he died. Devastated, but afraid of being alone all night, she goes out.
That turns out to be a bad move, as a man picks her up from the bar and later murders her. We follow Mia’s body to the morgue, where she eventually wakes up. Just as she starts to understand where she is, two creepy clay men slither out of the air vents. Mia’s able to escape through a floor vent, and soon after finds herself in the sewer.
As the clay men continue to chase her, a badass goth chick named Violet shows up and takes them out. Violet leads Mia back to her hideout, where we meet the rest of her crew, the “Goners.” This includes the upbeat Punch, the resentful Shiva, the homeless-looking Black Pepper, and 10 year old Japanese twins who don’t speak English.
Violet lays out the rules for Mia. She’s dead. And those clay people? The group doesn’t know who they are. Just that when you see them, you run away. Oh, and living people can see you, but they forget you within seconds, fallout from being so forgettable in real life.
What Violet can’t tell Mia is what they’re all doing here. But after they’re attacked by the clay men again, Violet thinks Mia’s murder might have something to do with the increased aggression. So they go back to the scene of the crime – the bar – to look for clues. They eventually realize it was the FedEx guy from work who killed her.
Meanwhile, the clay creatures keep multiplying, which Violet is convinced is because some porthole has been opened or something. Which means Mia and the other Goners will have to do what they were never able to do in real life – team up – and defeat the evil before their team is wiped out for good.
I was surprised by how much I liked this.
I freaking LOVED the first 10 pages, before I knew this was a fantasy movie. I thought Whedon might’ve been tackling real life for once, and the manner in which we meet this lonely girl then see her mercilessly killed was incredibly affecting. Mia was such a nice person. I was legit upset when she died.
Even when she wakes up again, I thought this was going to be a serious horror film in the vein of The Sixth Sense, where we follow this dead girl around as she tries to find her murderer.
But Whedon is in love with the ass-kicking 18-25 female character. You’re unlikely to read a Whedon script where that trope doesn’t get applied somehow. So I was bummed when Violet arrived, cause I figured everything would now go down in typical Whedon punch-kick-quip fashion.
But the mythology ends up being solid. The stuff with them being forgotten in life and needing to join together in death, and each having unique powers and the mystery of these clay people…
Let me put it this way. When writers haven’t figured out their mythology, you can tell. Everything is murky. This is what they’re saying about the new Pirates film where there’s a compass with rules and different types of pirates have rules and some pirates can come onto land and some can’t and nobody really knows why. The point is – we know when you’re adding on mythology to fill in plot holes as opposed to building the mythology first, making sure it’s solid, then building a story on top of that. Which is what Goners does. I mean, this script is Buffy meets The Matrix with a splash of The Frighteners, which, in my opinion, is a cool as hell idea.
And I’ll say this. While I don’t like hearing Whedon’s quip-heavy dialogue on-screen… boy is his dialogue pleasant to read on the page. It’s got this flow to it that I can appreciate after reading five scripts in a row where the dialogue is clunky or robotic or lifeless.
Here’s an early scene, where two cops are trying to figure out how Mia was killed after recovering her body from a lake…
“This is not the kind of girl that picks up a guy in a bar.”
“Until the day she does! One night she says ‘Hey, I’m a pathetic spinster with a nothing job and no friends and I’m gonna get crazy for a change.’ She rolls the dice, comes up snake eyes.”
“Did you just say ‘Spinster?’”
“The woman clearly had no real life at—“
“You’re a very old man.”
“Old enough to pin you down and take a crap on your head, you give me grief, Hirsh, you punk—“
“She’s looking very good. Can’t have been under for more’n a few hours. (beat) I’m saying she knows the guy. He comes in here and pulls her out, or maybe at the bar but… where’s the damn cat?”
“He probably took the cat. He killed her for her cat.”
“This is a fresh kill. He’s not far away. I’m leaving a car here.”
“Yeah, he might come back for the kibbles. Stay alert, officer. The motive was cat.”
Not only does he have fun with the dialogue, but notice the DIFFERENCES in the characters. One’s young. One’s old. One’s serious. One’s joking around. New writers don’t think about differences, so a lot of their characters end up saying similar things. That’s how easy it is to write bad dialogue. You don’t know why you can’t make the characters sound more interesting. Well, had you thought about their differences, their dialogue is naturally going to sound different. I don’t even have to introduce these cops to you and you know who they are. The dialogue tells us that.
The script is structurally perfect, too. The first act is us getting to know Mia so we care about her, the murder (inciting incident), and then her arrival into the afterlife. The first half of the second act is “fun and games,” to use an old Blake Snyder term. We meet the team. There’s some clay men battles. The midpoint is Violet realizing that Mia’s arrival has opened up some hole that’s brought more evil into the world. This leads to a goal – find out who murdered you since they might have something to do with this. Mia does that. This leads to them learning about the bigger threat, which propels us into the third act, where our team must vanquish that threat.
But just as a screenwriting lesson, I recommend anyone who’s having trouble with creating likable characters to read the first 10 pages of this script. It’s screenwriting perfection in how you create a hero who’s loveable and who every reader is going to want to follow no matter where that character goes.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Exploit your character’s unique traits to create unique moments. Every character you write should have something unique about them. Once you’ve established that, look for ways to exploit it. For example, Mia’s post-life power is that she can turn into water. So there’s this moment, later on, where she grabs her murderer and pulls his face into her body, which is now water. So his face is inside of her, and he’s drowning. I’d never seen a moment quite like that before, and it came about because Whedon exploited Mia’s most unique trait. And this doesn’t just have to be superpowers. Walter White (Breaking Bad) was a chemistry teacher. In one episode, he uses his knowledge of chemistry to create an impromptu bomb and escape a drug dealer. Find the unique trait. Exploit it!