Premise: After a military helicopter pilot is badly injured, the U.S. Government turns him into the most highly evolved human, and most dangerous weapon, on the planet.
About: Wahlberg’s supposedly been looking for a big franchise for awhile now. And The Six Billion Dollar Man (an upgrade of the 1970s TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man) appears to be it. The script here is written by Argentinian Damian Szifron, who will be making his American writing-directing debut with this film.
Details: 124 pages
Normally, you wouldn’t see me reviewing a Mark Wahlberg vehicle. Wahlberg and I have been on shaky ground ever since he voiced his life-long dislike for Star Wars. Until he calls me up to apologize, I’m staying away from his projects.
But today’s script is different. That’s because it’s written by Damian Szifron. Szifron wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of 2015, Wild Tales, a wacky and wonderful collection of short films that’s unlike anything you’ve seen. Seriously, go rent it right now.
Color me curious, then, how he ended up on this project. Despite the greatness of Wild Tales, there was nothing in the film that indicated he’s the right guy to write a great big Hollywood action film.
And my skepticism wasn’t helped when I opened the script file, which boasted an entire screenplay in the wrong font. But I’m trying to stay optimistic. I just put a script in my Top 25 that was 73 pages long. Who’s to say a wrong-fonted script couldn’t follow suit? Let’s find out.
Steve Austin is a 25 year-old crop duster when two 767s hit the Twin Towers in New York. Steve, inspired by his father, joins the military to go into Iraq and Murica some ter-rists!
But during his first mission, piloting a Blackhawk helicopter, he’s shot down and assumed dead. That is until Steve wakes up 15 years later on a hospital bed with a whole bunch of scientists looking down at him.
Steve’s new friends inform him he’s been injected with six billion (with a “B”) dollars worth of upgrades, making him the single most expensive soldier in the world. After a cool little montage of Steve learning all his new abilities (yes, his high jumping power is featured prominently), he’s sent on his very first mission, where he rescues a bunch of hostages from some terrorists.
Steve’s feeling conflicted about his new job though, particularly the fact that he’s lost all his freedom in what’s supposed to be the freest nation in the world. That sounds a bit Murica backwards to me.
And when Steve falls in love with a lovely bookstore owner, Miriam, she only reinforces this idea. In fact, she does some research on the corporation that’s turned Steve into a weapon, only to find out they’re connected to some Nazi scientists who were doing experiments on Jews in World War 2!
So Steve’s going to have to make a tough decision. Does he keep working for the company that’s helping keep the country safe? Or does he expose them for the morally suspect practices they endorse?
I feel sorry for true artists who are pulled into the Hollywood system.
This industry has a way of neutralizing everything that made them stand out in the first place.
It’s like if Miles Davis were asked to play trumpet in a pop band. The second he started riffing into one of his legendary improvisations, they’d turn to him and say, “Yo Miles! Just play the fucking song.”
That feels like what’s going on here with Szifron.
With that said, Szifron isn’t completely free from criticism here.
Some of the dialogue in this script is tough to read, with a lot of the early stuff being achingly on-the-nose. For example, an early conversation between Steve and his dad reads like this: “I want to be proud of myself, dad. Take a risk for once in my life.” “Then go all in, do it. Apply to NASA!” “Not with my grades. I’ll never get in.”
With that said, nobody’s coming to this movie to hear great dialogue. Most people come to big Hollywood movies for one reason and one reason only: to see them deliver on the promise of their premise.
What that means is, Six Billion Dollar Man is about a man who has six billion dollars worth of weapons-related enhancements in his body. People are coming to that film to see fresh, cool, original body-weapon-enhancement shit that they’ve never seen before. As long as you give the audience that which you promised? They’ll give you a feee pass on dicey dialogue and problematic plotting.
Unfortunately for Six Billion Dollar Man, it’s entering the market during the golden age of comic book movies, a world where EVERY SINGLE WRITER is trying to come up with fresh, cool, original body-weapon-enhancement shit. And in many ways, those writers have it easier. Cause they can draw on supernatural abilities. The Six-Billion Dollar Man has to keep its powers grounded.
Enhanced eye sight? Enhanced jumping-power? Enhanced hearing? A really strong arm? Am I paying 20 bucks to see these things?
I don’t want to go on one of my big rants here. But the proof is in the pudding. Stale concepts lead to stale execution. You can’t find original scenes and set pieces inside of ideas that have been done to death. I mean how many original ways can you write a spy-like character, even one with powers, taking down a group of terrorists?
They’ve all been done before. I challenge you. Right now. Come up with a terrorist take-down that’s never been done before. You can’t do it. Because you’re competing against too many shows and movies that have covered the same ground.
Contrast this with a movie like Inception. Inception had all these weird original scenes (people fighting each other in a gravity-shifting environment) because the concept itself was weird and original. When you start from a place of uniqueness, you open up a sort of “unique porthole,” which gives you access to scenes that nobody’s seen before because nobody’s bothered to go down those roads yet.
The only time unoriginal concepts work is when the director has some sort of unique stylistic take. John Wick is a good example. If you dress that movie down, it was one of a thousand guy-with-a-gun movies. But the directors had a really cool style and were able to use that style to cover up the script’s weaknesses. If you doubt that, talk to anyone who read the script before it was made. Many people considered it one of the worst scripts of the year. I mean, a guy goes on a Russia Mafia revenge trip because of a dog.
I should also point out to studios that if you’re going to revive old IP, you don’t want it to be the kind of IP that has inspired dozens of ripoffs in the years since it came out. I mean everything from Robocop to Deadpool has been using the genetically enhanced human being thing. If you’re going to come in after those updates, you’re going to have to update your own IP to a place where it feels fresh and different. And, unfortunately, Six Billion Dollar Man didn’t do that.
The script does start to ask some challenging questions about personal freedom in its later chapters but, again, that’s not why we come to see The Six Billion Dollar Man. We come to see The Six Billion Dollar Man to see six billion dollar set pieces. Shit that nobody’s ever done on screen. And I didn’t see that here.
I do want to give credit to Szifron for one thing before I end this review though. He wrote the best tongue-in-cheek line in a script I’ve read all year. Here he is describing Miriam, the bookstore character Steve falls in love with.
“Because she’s kind and lovely and has been cast perfectly in the role, we love this woman.”
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There’s some IP that carries well over time, and some that doesn’t. Action IP does not. What was interesting action-wise 40 years ago is not interesting today. Which means if you’re going to mine IP that old, you have to completely reinvent the character. In contrast, horror IP travels well. What was scary 40 years ago can still be scary today. Case in point. “It.”
Logan Martin’s script, “Meat,” becomes the first amateur script to make it into my Top 25 in over 5 years!!
Premise (from writer): A misanthropic man notices bizarre changes in himself, his wife, and the animals inhabiting the territory around their homestead as they attempt to survive self-imposed isolation.
Why You Should Read (from writer): After moving from North Dakota post-college at the end of 2016, I started to write scripts in my spare time and fell in love with it. My first screenplay placed in the top 20% of the 2017 Nicholl fellowship, and as of now I’ve “finished” five features and am working on my sixth. I aim to create original, meaningful stories, but even more so focus on presenting them in a unique way. MEAT has been compared to The Witch by readers due to its low budget, as well as its setting and tone. It’s an unconventional horror story that poses a moral question without appearing pretentious.
Writer: Logan Martin
Details: 72 pages!
Okay, I have to admit I’m a little nervous. I like this script so much. And I’m afraid I’m not going to convey all the reasons why in this review. I’m not going to articulate something or I’m going to forget a key reason for its awesomeness.
But the biggest thing I want to get across is that this is one of the best ways to break in as a screenwriter. Find a topic that interests you, come up with a story, then tell it in a way that best shows off your voice.
Because beyond this just being a great script, it’s a tremendous showcase for the unique way in which the writer sees the world.
Does that mean Meat’s perfect? That’s a tough question to answer. It’s perfect for what it is, for what it’s trying to be. But as a piece of screenwriting, it’s filled with lots of “mistakes” and rule-ignoring. However, I contend that following the rules is how you write a good screenplay, but breaking the rules is how you write a great one.
Meat introduces us to 30-something couple Ben and Rein. Ben and Rein are normal adults in every way but one – they live in the middle of nowhere, off the grid.
We learn later that they both had normal jobs, lived in the city. But at a certain point they became exhausted by the monotony of it all – the rat race, that thing all of us get sick of sooner or later. The difference is, Ben and Rein decided to do something about it. Or, maybe it was more Ben than Rein. But we’ll get into that more in a second.
When these guys say “off the grid,” they really mean, “off the grid.” To the point where they’re hunting their own food. Ben enjoys the thrill of the hunt, and he’s got a particularly healthy deer population to shoot away at. They also have rabbits skittering about, chickens, and a couple of pigs (Bert and Ernie) in their mini-barn next door.
Every night, Ben prepares some juicy red MEAT for dinner. He takes pride in the fact that he’s killed and prepared the meal. So there’s nothing that makes him happier than sitting with Rein after a long day and eating. That juicy bloody dripping red… meat.
The only thing left in life that agitates Ben is going into town. There are still supplies the two can’t obtain on their own. And so a few times a year, Ben has no choice but to make that trip to the grocery store and stock up on necessities. Ben dislikes his latest experience so much, he proposes to Rein cutting the store out completely so that they’ll finally, officially, off the grid. Rein’s hesitant but if it’s what Ben wants, she supports him.
As the days go by, we get the sense that Rein is having some regrets about this new life of theirs. It’s not blatant. She’s always agreeable and on board with her husband’s choices. But Rein may not have envisioned that “off the grid” was this off the grid.
And so one day she drops a bombshell on Ben. She no longer wants to eat meat. Ben stares at her, stumped. Hunting, preparing, cooking – they’re his favorite thing to do for her. “Why?” is all he can think of to say. While she doesn’t say it then, it’s clear that the process of killing animals and eating them has started to affect her. “Well, if that’s what you want,” Ben concedes.
And while they don’t know it yet, that tiny choice is the beginning of the end. Without a sufficient amount of food and protein, Rein starts getting thinner and thinner. Ben is increasingly frustrated with her decision, but he’s dealing with his own issues. Not long after that day, Ben goes hunting, and when he lines up a deer in his scope, he sees that a second deer, next to it, is… STANDING UP ON TWO FEET. As if talking. Ben lowers the rifle to watch the deer disappear into the woods.
Ben’s shaken by the experience as it was just so real.
As time goes by, Rein becomes more resistant to Ben’s hunting, and seems to be getting too close to the animals, particularly Bert and Ernie, their pigs. One day, one of the pigs gets out of its pen, and Ben goes chasing after it, following its tracks in the snow. To his shock, after awhile, the tracks turn from four separate feet… to just two.
And if that isn’t bad enough, the next time Ben goes hunting, he gets shot at. What the hell is going on? When he comes home later to find that Rein has made dinner with three table places instead of two, the truth of just how fucked up things have gotten comes to light. But what Ben doesn’t know is that it’s gotten far worse than he can imagine. And that he finally may be the hunted, rather than the hunter.
Oh man. Where do I start with how good this was!
Let’s start at the top and discuss the TENSION in Ben and Rein’s relationship, something that was felt from the get-go. This choice was paramount to the script working because, remember, 80% of this script is two characters. So you need some sort of conflict to make that interesting for that long. By adding this underlying tension to Ben and Rein’s relationship, you build SUBTEXT into every conversation they have. Every word has an additional meaning. A simple “How are you?” doesn’t mean “How are you?” It means, “Why aren’t you talking to me? Why are you acting so weird? Did I do something wrong? I’m trying to be respectful here and not push but I’m getting frustrated.”
This is something newbie screenwriters don’t get. Every time a character in one of their scripts says, “How are you?” it literally means, “How are you?” Which is boring. And that’s not to say sometimes “How are you?” can’t mean “How are you?” But it’s when EVERY line is literal that dialogue becomes patently boring. This is where the critique, “Your dialogue is on-the-nose” comes from.
Martin needed to stick the landing on that relationship because, as many of you noticed, there wasn’t any GSU in Meat! “Yo Carson. Didn’t you say all scripts need GSU to be good? Why you lie?” Sheesh, get your bloody meat hooks off me. GSU is the main ingredient required for mainstream genre screenwriting – horror, thriller, action, adventure, sci-fi. But it isn’t a writer’s only option. And it’s used less frequently with indie fare, which is what Meat is.
If you’re not going to utilize the GSU formula, your next best option is creating a dramatic question that drives the narrative. That’s a fancy way of saying: Have an overarching question that the audience wants to see resolved. In the case of Meat, it’s “Are these two going to make it?” It will, of course, be up to the individual reader to determine whether that question is interesting enough for them to be invested. And I would assume that, for some of you, it wasn’t. You didn’t care if these two “made it” or not.
This is the danger of moving away from heavy horsepower storytelling tools like GSU (goal, stakes, urgency). Is that people with short attention spans or less interest in the psychological battles of characters aren’t going to jump on board.
But see, this is why I think Meat is so great. It’s not just about the frame-battle between its two main characters. Martin starts adding little mysteries here and there that add layers to the story. When Ben starts seeing animals propped up on two legs talking, it’s like, what the fuck is going on? And when he starts getting shot at, it’s like, who’s shooting at him?? It could be their neighbors, it could be Rein, it could also be… the animals he’s been hunting.
And there’s actually one big advantage to a non-GSU script. It’s easier for the writer to stay ahead of the reader. If your hero has a clear goal, like getting the Ark of the Covenant or killing the terrorists, there aren’t a ton of ways to achieve that goal. As readers, we have a good sense of how things are going to play out, even if we don’t know the exact path by which we’ll get there.
Without that clear end point, the writer can yank the reader around in a multitude of unexpected directions because the narrative isn’t being pulled towards an obvious one (kill the terrorist). And that’s why I enjoyed this so much. I had no idea where it was going, pretty much up until the final page. And I can count the number of times that’s happened in the past year on one hand.
Now a lot of you may point out the short page count. And yes, I agree that that’s a problem. The industry standard for a feature is between 90-120 pages, with the sweet spot being between 100-110. However, if you are going to make a mistake in this area, it’s better to be on the low end (less than 90) than the high (over 120).
I fought with the 75 page count for awhile, wondering if it was because of the lack of dialogue. Dialogue takes up more space, so if you don’t use a lot of it, your script is going to be shorter. And there wasn’t a lot of dialogue here. Which I liked, by the way. It made it so that each time there was a conversation, that conversation had weight.
In the end though, I think this needs to be beefed up (no pun intended). You need one more subplot. And I’m not sure where that’s going to come from. I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments. I’m thinking Ben gets most of the focus here. So a subplot that focuses on Rein would be nice. Maybe something where she spends more time with the pigs and chickens, especially since the pig payoff in the end is so great. If we can just get this up to 85 pages, I think you’ve got enough for a feature.
Man, I really liked this. Never has a sentence as simple as, “I don’t want to eat meat anymore,” shaken me so much. And that’s a testament to Logan and his amazing ability to capture the depth of this fractured relationship. I mean hell, this script even had a dream sequence in it (a HUGE Scriptshadow no-no) that a I liked. Has the screenwriting sky fallen?
I would love for “Meat” to get as much publicity as possible because I think it deserves to make the Black List. It’s exactly the kind of script they used to celebrate before they went all true-story/biopic. Hopefully the industry recognizes that it’s still possible to write original unique stories. Great job, Logan. I hope this script jump-starts your career!
Script link: Meat
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!!!)
[ ] genius
What I learned: Learn to dramatize your ideas. Say you want to make a statement about our society’s obsession with killing and eating animals. The bad writer will come up with a series of scenes of characters debating the issue. “Meat eating is bad.” “But we were put on this earth to hunt. We need food.” “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, no one would eat meat anymore.” Watching and listening to shit like that is nauseating. As a writer, what you want to do is DRAMATIZE your idea, like Logan did with “Meat.” In order to make a statement about this topic, he placed two characters up in the middle of nowhere where they had to hunt their own food then had one of the characters no longer want to participate, leading to an organic exploration of the moral implications of an animal-killing meat-eating culture. Always look to dramatize your ideas!
Holy shit, guys.
Okay, here’s the deal. I read this script this morning with the plan to get a review up quickly afterwards.
All of that changed when it became apparent that this was the best amateur script I’ve read all year. Guys, this script is really REALLY good. Like, really good. And this writer deserves a lot more than a quickly written review.
So here’s what we’re gonna do. I want you to read this script over the weekend. I’ll then give it a proper review on Monday and we can all discuss it.
Screenplay Link: MEAT
For those who missed last weekend’s Amateur Offerings, the script is titled “MEAT” and here’s Logan Martin’s submission details.
Premise: A misanthropic man notices bizarre changes in himself, his wife, and the animals inhabiting the territory around their homestead as they attempt to survive self-imposed isolation.
Why You Should Read: After moving from North Dakota post-college at the end of 2016, I started to write scripts in my spare time and fell in love with it. My first screenplay placed in the top 20% of the 2017 Nicholl fellowship, and as of now I’ve “finished” five features and am working on my sixth. I aim to create original, meaningful stories, but even more so focus on presenting them in a unique way. MEAT has been compared to The Witch by readers due to its low budget, as well as its setting and tone. It’s an unconventional horror story that poses a moral question without appearing pretentious.
Congrats to Logan for getting my first amateur IMPRESSIVE rating of the year!!!
Has it happened yet?
The It backlash?
I’ve found that each year, the post-success backlash leash gets shorter and shorter. So has it happened yet for It?
I don’t know about you folks. But I think this movie is great. It’s the kind of movie that reminds you of why we go to the movies. Not just to see a bunch of pretty pixels clash, but to meet people, get to know people, have an experience with them, see them overcome things.
I love this message that we’re stronger together than we are apart. As I’ve told you guys before, I believe the best themes are the most universal. “It” proves that.
So all you haterz? Just stop.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk script changes. “It” endured a long development process that saw writers and directors come and go. At one point True Detective director Cary Fukunaga was going to helm the project, and that’s what got the world excited in the first place. The guy who did that fucked up show was in charge of Stephen King’s most fucked up story? Sign me up!
But things got delayed, schedules got screwed up, and away Cary went. So one of the big questions has been, what was Fukunaga planning to do with the property? What was his (and co-writer Chase Palmer’s) script like? Lucky for you guys, I’ve read it. And I’m going to give you the lowdown.
Since this is a screenwriting site, I’m going to focus on the screenwriting changes. And to that I’ll say this: The script didn’t change that much. However, there are a lot of little screenwriting changes that are relevant to geeks like you and me. Are you ready to check them out? Good. Jump on my homemade raft. Don’t worry. You’ll float too.
The first big change I noticed happened in the first scene of Georgie making a paper boat with his brother, floating it down the street, and getting eaten by Pennywise in the gutter. In this early draft, the conversation between Georgie and Pennywise takes only a SINGLE PAGE – just one page of dialogue – before Pennywise kills him.
Gary Dauberman extended that scene waaaaay longer. The onscreen conversation goes on for 3-4 minutes. And that was a much better choice. Whenever you have a great scene setup with a potential dangerous outcome, that’s screenplay gold right there. Those are the situations we wish we could have in every scene. So when you have that, you milk it for as long as possible. And that’s what Dauberman did. And the scene was all the better for it.
The next change I noticed was Stan’s first scare scene. Stan is the young Jewish kid getting ready for his first Bar Mitzvah. He’s going to finally “become a man.” In the movie, his scary scene occurs when he goes into his dad’s library and the weird warped painting dude comes out of the picture and stalks him.
In Fukunaga and Palmer’s draft, Stan goes to the bathroom, and an eerie beautiful naked woman rises from the toilet next to him, asking if he’s ready to become a man. Her lower half still blocked, she tempts Stan with seeing more of her, finally rising up to show that her entire lower half is decrepit and rotting.
This was an interesting dilemma, which of these two scenes to go with, because Fukunaga and Palmer’s scene is more character-based. The woman represents the other side of Stan’s impending manhood. It plays to his eventual transformation. But the painting scene, while having zero thematic connection to anything in the movie, is just scarier.
As screenwriters, we face this dilemma all the time. Do we go with the more entertaining choice or the more relevant choice? It’s never an easy answer and you have to weigh both sides carefully and make the decision you think is best for the script. They probably made the best choice to go with the painting scene.
Next up was the absence, in this early draft, of the New Kids on the Block inside jokes between Beverly and Ben. These jokes played interestingly in my theater and I’m not sure what audiences thought of them as a whole, but here’s why I think Dauberman’s choice to include Donny, Joey, and Marky Mark wins again. In order to convey a bond between characters, you need specificity. You need something beyond “I like you and you like me.” The specificity of that New Kids connection made Beverly and Ben’s friendship more real.
Another change in this draft actually addresses a complaint I brought up in my review of the film. It was there that I questioned if Ben would really follow a trail of spooky flaming eggs into the basement. The point of the scene was to set up the tragedy in Derry 30 years earlier during the Easter Day parade that killed 100 people in a factory fire.
In Fukunaga and Palmer’s draft, this scene doesn’t happen. Instead, the famous fire is set up via the bully character, Henry Bowers. Bowers, after searching for Ben, ends up at the old factory, where he and his cronies search around. They start seeing scary ass shit, including Pennywise.
The reason I think this scene was cut was because we had a ton of main characters to cover. This is the issue you run into whenever you write ensemble scripts (“protagonist as a group”). You have to build depth into each and every character, which takes time. They probably decided that giving a full 5 minutes to the bully character wasn’t time well spent. That as much time as possible should be dedicated to the core group of boys. And so Henry’s factory scene was cut and the Easter spooky scene was shifted over to Ben. Even though it didn’t make sense!
A problem in both drafts seems to be Mike Hanlon (the lone black kid in the group). He has so little to do in the movie that you’re surprised when he actually says anything at all. He gets a little more time here, but not much.
There’s a scene where Mike’s dad tells him about his past and we flash back and we see the KKK and his dad says he saw Pennywise. But obviously none of it made it into the movie. Usually when you’re cutting scenes like that, it’s because you don’t have any confidence in the character.
But there may be a bigger reason, one that more recent readers of It can correct me on if I’m wrong. I seem to remember some HARDCORE exploration of racism in the book. King wrote this back in the 80s, when racism was more rampant. And that sort of defined Mike’s character. I don’t believe today’s audiences wanted to go that deep and the writers recognized that. Which, unfortunately, didn’t leave much for Mike to do but shoot sheep.
Another scene in Fukunaga and Palmer’s script has the kids going to the fireworks show together. Scenes like this are important in group friendship movies because they help solidify the bond in the audience’s eyes. As a writer, you can’t just assume the audience will buy the friendship. You have to SHOW it. However, the scene was erased and I’m guessing it’s because they felt the naked swimming scene was so strong and did such a good job of selling the bonding of these kids that they didn’t need an extra scene to do it.
Aspiring screenwriters everywhere: This is what big time screenwriters get paid for. The people who can do in one scene what it takes others to do in two or three or four – they’re the ones who are going to get the job. Screenwriting is about efficiency. So you have to be able to do a lot inside little spurts of time.
Another big change is how the kids end up in the Neibolt Street haunted house. In the film, they CHOOSE to go in there. In Fukunaga and Palmer’s draft, they get backed in there by Henry Bowers and his goons.
This is the most interesting “It” draft-war debate, in my opinion. Motivating characters to willingly walk towards danger is always tough. So Fukunaga and Palmer made the smart choice of forcing the characters into a place they didn’t want to be in.
On the surface, this seems like the better choice. In the movie, when the kids are in the house, you’re constantly asking, “What are they doing here??” It didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But I can understand Dauberman’s reasoning for doing so. It makes the characters a lot more active if they CHOOSE to enter the house. It makes them braver. Dauberman just needed a reason to get them there, so he came up with this whole plotline where all the sewers lined up under the house and, therefore, that’s the most likely place Bill’s missing brother Georgie would be.
In the end, I’m not sure which was the better choice. I like the characters willingly going to and having a purpose to be in the house. But had they been pushed into the house, you wouldn’t have had the problem you had in the movie, which was the characters standing around waiting to be scared. They would’ve been trying to escape the bully and move through the house more quickly.
There were other changes here and there. There’s a flashback 1800s Pennywise Old West scene. There’s more bully stuff. But both scripts are working off the same source material so the stories never stray too far from one another. It’s always interesting, though, observing the different choices a writer makes, what they think is important and unimportant.
I was watching some promotional material for the upcoming “Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s adaptation of the making of the worst movie ever made, The Room. Franco asks the weirdo real-life star of the infamous film, Tommy Wiseau, what part of James’s movie Tommy liked best. Tommy replied, “The way the pool was lit.” Franco laughed, because the pool was like 3 seconds of the entire movie and didn’t have anything to do with anything. It’s an extreme example of how every artist prioritizes things differently.
But in the case of “It,” I honestly don’t think any of these changes mattered. It would’ve been a good movie either way. The source material was too damn strong.
Premise: A man who’s lived his entire adult life in a mental institution obsessing over the beautiful niece he’s never met, finally decides to leave and find her.
About: Ted Foulke, aka Wentworth Miller, became a tour de force on the screenwriting circuit back in 2010, selling two scripts, Stoker and The Disappointments Room, back to back, winning over Hollywood with his sophisticated, intelligent, dark voice. Stoker became a huge project, attracting visionary South Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, The Handmaiden). But something fell through the cracks during the adaptation, and the movie performed badly at the box office, disappearing out of the public eye almost immediately. The Disappointments Room, the more commercial of the two projects, didn’t fare much better, getting caught in the Relativity meltdown, ultimately dumped into the VOD market without any promotion. Today’s script, “Uncle Charlie,” is a prequel to Stoker.
Writer: Ted Foulke (Wentworth Miller)
Details: 119 pages
There was a good one year period there where Wentworth Miller was considered the best up-and-coming screenwriter in Hollywood. He wrote two specs, Stoker and The Disappointments Room, that wowed the shit out of anybody who read them. There was a depth and attention to detail that was absent from all the vapid empty scritps selling at the time, and just an interesting dark voice at the center of it all, giving us stories we’d never quite seen before.
But then the movies came out and they were… ignored. And I have a theory on that. Films that fall under the horror tag but don’t contain supernatural elements struggle to find an audience. There are exceptions to this. If the scripts have a big flashy hook (Get Out or The Purge), they can work. But if you have something like Stoker, where it isn’t 100% clear when you watch the trailer what genre we’re in or what kind of story we’re watching, that’s going to keep people out of the theater.
And the problem with Miller is that he actually makes his scripts intelligent. Which, funnily enough, alienates audiences even more. If he could just dumb it down a little (throw a killer clown in there), I’m sure he’d be one of the biggest horror screenwriters in town. I’d love to see a Miller supernatural horror film. I think it would be awesome. But for right now, we have his prequel to Stoker, Uncle Charlie. Let’s check it out.
“Uncle Charlie” starts out explaining that this a prequel to Stoker, and therefore if you don’t know that film, you won’t be able to appreciate this one. That’s a tricky choice because I don’t remember much about Stoker. But I do remember that a teenage girl named India loses her father and she and her mother move in with his mysterious brother, Uncle Charlie.
What we come to know later in the film is that Uncle Charlie has spent nearly his entire life in a mental institution. And that’s where we find Charlie here, a year before the events of Stoker, pulling off his best One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest impression, wrecking havoc on his version of Miss. Ratchet, Doctor Walker. Charlie could’ve left this place years ago. He was actually able to leave the day he turned 18. But he CHOOSES to stay here.
When Charlie’s not making Doctor Walker’s life miserable, he’s drawing pictures of India. This part I didn’t understand. As far as I can tell, he’s never met India. So I don’t know how he can draw her so well. Maybe he’s seen pictures of her?
Meanwhile, back at the farm, India divides her time between going to school and taking piano lessons with her new teacher, Miss Price. Miss Price is an excellent teacher minus the fact that she moves from town to town, torturing and killing her students. In fact, she’s got one locked up in a cage in her basement right now. One that will have to be “taken care of” in order to make room for an unsuspecting India.
Over at the nut house, Uncle Charlie finally decides to flee the coup, illustriously turning Dr. Walker into a vegetable before doing so. And the first place he goes is India’s town. He’s got to meet his obsession, of course. He gets there right when India goes to her first high school dance. And let’s just say he “takes care” of India’s date so that she’s free.
That night, after the dance, India runs into Miss Price, who “happens” to be driving by, and who offers India a ride home. But, oh yes, she wants to stop by her house first to “show India something.” We all know where this is going. However, what Miss Price doesn’t know is that India’s got a new guardian angel. A very dangerous new guardian angel.
If yesterday’s prose annoyed you and you prefer a more classic writing style, this script is for you. Miller’s prose is simple, efficient, descriptive, and flows better than any script you’ll read this year. It’s what makes his scripts so easy to read, which, in this case, was necessary, since the story itself doesn’t stack up to his previous entries.
The problem is that Miller handcuffs himself with the prequel treatment. Prequels never work. Ever. I’m not sure why writers like them. They’re one giant narrative fork in the road where every path you take leads to a dead end. George Lucas painfully found this out when he started writing Episode 1. Wait, I have to keep two of my biggest characters, Obi-Wan Kenobi and R2-D2, apart for 99% of the trilogy?
Uncle Charlie follows two separate storylines, Uncle Charlie’s and India’s, and while these storylines want to find each other, or, at the very least, intersect, they can’t. Because in the next movie, Uncle Charlie and India meet for the first time. Miller tries. He tries his darndest, even cheats to give us that crossover moment. But the storylines never overlap in any meaningful way, which leaves the reader wondering, what was the point?
Another issue is that the script’s best plot thread, the serial killer piano teacher, is operating at a net negative. We know Miss Price can’t kill India because India appears in the next movie. And if you don’t have the uncertainty of whether India will succumb to this monster or not, where is the suspense? These movies only work if they’re suspenseful. So if your splashiest storyline can’t mine that tool, what’s the point?
You also run into issues like, what are the chances that so many killers are randomly intersecting in life? What are the chances that this girl has a serial killer uncle AND a serial killer piano teacher? Audiences start asking themselves these questions. And the answers are what break the suspension of disbelief.
“Uncle Charlie” also reminded me of a problem I had with Stoker. India isn’t an interesting character. I’ve told you guys this before. Be careful about making your main character a sociopath, eliminating all feeling and personality from them. These people walk around emotionless for 100 minutes, leaving the story feeling empty and cold whenever we’re around them. Miller tries to balance this out with the wackier more expressive Uncle Charlie, and it works to an extent. Uncle Charlie is a compelling character to watch. But like I said, the narrative is so handcuffed by its inability to intersect, it ultimately doesn’t matter.
“Uncle Charlie” is a fun and easy read for those who like reading scripts. But there’s neither a hook or a plot here that necessitates it becoming a movie. If Miller were to ever pursue this, it’d be in his best interest to eliminate the India side of the story and watch Uncle Charlie go off on some adventure. There are plenty of fun threads you could find there.
Old School Scriptshadow Script link: Uncle Charlie
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Prose is simplicity. Miller is known for having some of the best prose in the business. But note how his description usually stays between 1-3 lines long. Note how he doesn’t use SAT words. Note how a lot of his prose breaks down to short fifth-grade level sentence structure. “Uncle Charlie” is right up there for you to download and see for yourself. A lot of beginner writers would do well to study it.