Premise: (from Black List) When a hard nosed liberal lawyer who has been fighting the good fight while others take the credit assumes the role of his crusading firm’s front man, he discovers some unsettling things about what they’ve done, resulting in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action.
About: Dan Gilroy wrote and directed the amazing “Nightcrawler” starring Jake Gyllenaal. He also wrote the just released, “Kong: Skull Island.” Inner City is his latest writer-director project. It will star Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell.
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Details: 100 pages
There are some who believe that Dan Gilroy wrote the best spec of the last half-decade in “Nightcrawler.” It’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to a modern-day Taxi Driver. So you’d think that anything he wrote next, I’d be tearing down the internet to read. Well, check out that logline above. That’s why there was no tearing, and no reading.
This is why concepts are so important in screenwriting. They are your screenplay’s sales pitch and they need to sell on every level. Writer to agent, agent to producer, producer to studio, studio to director. In every stage, your idea will be pitched by someone who isn’t you to someone who’s never met you and if your idea sounds like it could be boring, they say no thanks before they’ve even heard what your main character’s name is.
Of course, the rules are different if you’re Dan Gilroy. People will read your script if it’s about the Mildly Strenuous Oklahoma Half-Drought of 1978. But I got some sad news for you. You aren’t Dan Gilory. You haven’t written the next Taxi Driver. Not yet, anyway. And until you do, you have to think about that chain of command your script will be put through and if your script sounds good enough and marketable enough that every person on that ladder will want to pass it up to the next guy.
Now let’s all hold hands and pray that this script is more entertaining than its logline!
Roman J. Israel is the legal world’s #1 idealist. He’s been working in a small 2-man criminal law firm his entire career. He and his partner, William Jackson, have the perfect arrangement. William goes into court and fights the system while Roman stays back and does the clerical work.
And then William has a heart attack and dies.
A sharkish lawyer named George Patel who worked for William comes in and clears out William’s side of the business, essentially closing the firm down. But when he realizes that Roman is actually a brilliant law mind with an impeccable memory, he hires him. What George learns is that Roman’s intelligence comes with a price – he’s borderline autistic, a social justice warrior without social skills.
Due to Roman’s condition, he can only see black or white, right or wrong, and he’s preconditioned to always do the right thing. So when George loosens Roman’s leash on a murder suspect they represent, Roman can’t help himself from trying to get the man off, something he has no authority to do.
As Roman looks deeper into the case, he realizes that this man, a gang member, didn’t murder the victim. His gang leader did. He’s just taking the rap. When some family members of the victim put up a reward for the killer’s name, Roman discreetly gives them the name of the gang leader and collects the money.
But everything comes crashing down when that gang leader hires Roman’s firm specifically to defend him. But defense was never on his mind. He just wants Roman to know that he knows he turned him in. And that he’s coming for him. Roman responds by collecting all his things and making a getaway. But is it too late?
If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the week that after reading a Friday the 13th reboot script and a Dan Gilroy script, that I’d give the higher rating to Friday the 13th, I woulda told you you lost your skull spaghetti. But that’s screenwriting. It’s not always the best writers who come up with the best scripts.
One of the problems top-tier veteran screenwriters have is that they try to be great. They try to write a classic film. And when you’re statue chasing, you lose sight of what a good story should do. Which is simply to entertain the audience.
Don’t get me wrong. Gilroy gets credit for taking a chance here. But I couldn’t make heads or tails of that chance. I mean, I was 80 pages into the script before any sort of plot emerged (the gang leader threatening Roman). Before that it was Roman literally stumbling and bumbling around, muttering incoherent legalese to anyone within earshot. He reminded me of Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory coupled with a John Grisham hero with a sprinkle of Forrest Gump for good measure.
The script is also bogged down with tons of legal inside baseball. There are a lot of lines like this one: “Fisher’s first offense. Could have been reduced to a misdemeanor with precedents and persistence but you plead him out to felony conspiracy and possession. That became your M. O. Take a retainer, waive cleints’ right to pre-lim then dump them on public defenders when they complain.” I felt like I needed to pass the BAR just to understand the conversations.
But the biggest problem is that I didn’t understand Roman. I didn’t understand what he wanted. The brilliance of Nightcrawler was that you always understand what he wanted. He was a capitalist. He wanted to become great at this thing so he could cash in. I never knew what Roman’s objective was. He kind of joins George begrudgingly and then bounces around like a pinball between fellow associates and clients, helping and chastising in equal measure, to varying degrees of success. Every time I thought I knew what Roman wanted, I fell down a chute and got sent back to the beginning.
The thing is, there’s a plot here. It just develops too late. Roman turns the gang leader in for the cash reward, then the gang leader ignorantly hires Roman’s firm. This would happen at the end of Act 1. Roman keeps the secret as best he can, but we know, at some point, it’s going to come out. It’s the old Hitchcock bomb under the table. With Roman’s money grab being the bomb.
We’d then focus the second act on this case as opposed to jumping around to 20 different cases, none of which are interesting or even become important to the story, and when the bomb is finally pulled out from under the table, the third act becomes about Roman’s survival and escape.
My guess for why Gilroy didn’t do this is because he wasn’t interested in plot. He was interested in this character. I just wish the character that was in his head was the same one who was on the page. Cause I still don’t know what the message was with Roman. I suppose it was: Don’t do good to the detriment of one’s own well-being? I don’t know. Roman’s going to be a fun character for Denzel to play, no doubt. I just hope there’s more of a point to the plot once it’s all said and done.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: You have to understand what your character wants. Because that will dictate their goals, their pursuits, their actions, and their choices throughout the screenplay. If you’re wishy-washy on what your hero wants, all of those things become wishy-washy as well and the movie gets messy. I mean what does Ben Affleck’s character in The Accountant want? He wants to be a good accountant. He wants to kill people for money. Like, what the fuck?? Clarify the want, which clarifies the character, which solidifies the plot. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here in this draft of Inner City. Hopefully it does in future drafts.
Premise: The reimagined origin story of everyone’s favorite slasher hero, Jason Voorhees.
About: Aaron Guzikowski broke onto the screenwriting scene eight years ago when he wrote one of the hottest specs of that year, Prisoners, a sale that would net him 7 figures (and even more once the movie got made). The Friday the 13th folks have been keen to re-jumpstart the franchise. And Guzikowski’s deranged nihilistic voice seemed like the perfect fit for that universe. It’s unclear where this project stands at the moment. It’s been on, it’s been off, it’s been on again. But if it’s off, the producers may want to take another look. They might be sitting on a hit.
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Details: 96 pages
One of the frustrating things about breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter is getting your balls chopped off the second you walk through the door. Here you were – your broke in with this hip offbeat screenplay or came up with a fresh take on an old concept – showed the world why you were a screenwriting boss and took Hollywood by storm – then the second you wiped your shoes on the mat, the powers that be said, “Okay, here are 5 of the blandest projects in the world. Choose which one you want to write.”
Of course, all writers want the assignments that show off their creativity – the Benjamin Buttons, The Martians, the Wolf of Wall Streets. But only the A-list screenwriters get those jobs, leaving you to elevate stuff like Power Rangers, Taken the web movie, and Friday the 13th.
And you better get ready for those bland horror offers, guys. It continues to be the best return-on-investment genre out there so there’s lots of assignments. The problem is, it’s hard to make horror fresh. That goes double for aging horror franchises like this one which usually go one of two ways: uninspired straight-to-digital drek, or a reimagining of the series that’s so fresh it catapults you up to the next level.
Shall we see where Mr. Guzikowski’s take landed?
The year is 1977, which was a creepy year to begin with. But to add hockey pucks to injury, we’re at Camp Crystal Lake with a bunch of teenage counselors more focused on doing drugs and fucking than counseling.
Well, except for Annie Christie, an Olympic-level swimmer who seems to be the only counselor with a head on her shoulders. For now. When Annie’s bitchy younger sister, Mary, bullies another girl, Annie assigns her the ultimate punishment – give teenage Jason Voorhees a swim lesson.
Besides being the world’s worst conversationalist, Jason Voorhees also wears a medical mask to hide his deformed face, which he got from his psycho father repeatedly beating his mom while she was pregnant. So he’s not exactly the funnest student to teach.
When Mary doesn’t show up for the lesson, Annie is forced to take Jason with her and her friends on a previously scheduled booze cruise. But Jason eventually goes unattended and tries to swim back to shore, a swim he never completes. Even worse, when Annie tells her mother what happened, her mother tells her to lie, to say that Jason never showed up for his swim lesson that day.
Cut to 3 years later and Annie hasn’t recovered from that day or the lie she’s been forced to tell. Unfortunately for her, karma is a bitch, especially in horror franchises. Jason’s mom, Pamela, finds out what happened that day and goes on a fucking rampage, determined to kill everyone who was on that cruise.
But that’s small potatoes compared to the other person who’s stalking Annie and her pals. That would be Jason Voorhees, back from the dead and all grown up. He’s even replaced his medical mask with a more stylish hockey version. Jason is so out for blood, that when he’s finished with these kids, Crystal Lake is gonna run red.
Let me start by saying it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Friday the 13th movie so I don’t know which choices should be credited to the original writers and which to Gusikowski. So if I give Guzikowski props for something he didn’t come up with, feel free to correct me in the comments.
I knew from the start there was something different about this script. It begins with a great teaser that has two teenagers in the woods climbing one of those endless ladders to a fire tower (used to see forest fires). After they get up to the top, we see a mysterious ranger at the bottom of the ladder start to climb after them.
I mean, is there anything more horrifying than being 500 feet in the air with your only escape route being blocked by a blood-thirsty forest ranger? This kind of writing is a bigger deal than you realize. Scripts that capture readers right away are much more likely to keep them engaged. It’s extremely rare for a script to start with a boring or bad scene and recover.
I mean, yes, it happens occasionally. But, usually, good writers realize how important immediately capturing the reader is, so they come out firing.
But the real accomplishment of this script is how much character development went into it. When you throw on one of these slasher flicks, you expect to see mindless slashing for 90 straight minutes. But Guzikowski makes sure that before any real blood starts flowing, you know Jason Voorhees. And not just know him, but experience this shitty horrible hand he’s been dealt. Those swim lesson scenes alone turned Jason into a sympathetic figure.
And that approach extended to Annie as well, who had this whole competitive swimmer backstory, which may seem insignificant, but when you give characters things they’re pursuing outside of the confines of the plot, it makes them feel more like real human beings.
And I loved how Guzikowski made Annie’s pursuit organic. A lot of amateur writers give characters bizarre pursuits that exist in some parallel universe to the story they’re telling. Like they’d have Annie pursuing a singing career or something. But where does this story take place? A lake, right? So it make sense that you’d tie Annie’s pursuit into that. She’s a swimmer.
And Guzikowski extended that into all corners of the script. In fact, this is a great screenwriting lesson for aspiring screenwriters. The “mask” your slasher wears is a very common trope in horror films. So I’m going to ask you to imagine your own personal slasher concept right now. Go ahead. Think of one. Now what mask would you give your villain?
Got your answer?
Well, you’re wrong. You blew it.
The mask should be an organic extension of the character and the story. So here, Jason Voorhees wears a hockey mask. Why? Well, when winter comes and this lake freezes over, the local kids play hockey games on the ice. Sometimes stuff is left behind. A skate here, a hockey mask there. And that’s how your villain, who drowned in that lake, started wearing a hockey mask.
Details like that set you apart as a writer. They show that you’re really thinking about the story you’re telling and not just dumping whatever comes to mind on the page.
If this script has a weakness, it’s that it devolves into more predictable patterns as it goes on. But, overall, it still had me guessing more than accurately predicting, and that’s really hard to do with a horror film, much less a well-known horror franchise.
This script is an important reminder of the bar horror writers should be aiming for – prioritizing interesting characters with real lives over inventive slasher kills.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: For a great horror scene, find an inventive way to place your characters in a location where there’s no way out and the bad guy is coming. I’ve seen a thousand scenes with characters inside a cabin or a closet with no way out and the killer coming. But I was so much more scared during this opening because the room was 500 feet in the air with only one way out (the ladder) and our killer steadily climbing that ladder towards our helpless victims.
Hello everyone. This weekend is your LAST CHANCE to enter the Scriptshadow Short Script Contest. Admission is FREE and the winner gets their short produced and, hopefully, their career started! Here’s the original announcement post. But just to keep things simple, I’m re-posting the guidelines here.
If you’re just hearing about the contest now, check out the four SHORTS MINI-CONTESTS we’ve had this month to scope out the competition (sort the comments by “TOP” to see which shorts got the most votes). Some really inventive and impressive shorts have been written so far.
OFFICIAL CONTEST GUIDELINES!
1) The deadline is 11:59pm Pacific Time, Sunday, March 12th.
2) Send all submissions to email@example.com (subject line: “SHORT SCRIPT”)
3) Your submission should include.
The title of your script.
The genre of your script.
The logline of your script.
A PDF attachment of your script.
4) You can submit a total of two short scripts. If you are caught submitting more than two scripts under separate e-mail addresses, you will be immediately disqualified from this AND all future contests.
5) Page length…
Recommended number of pages: 8 or less
Maximum number of pages (anything over won’t be read): 15
6) Eligibility Rule #1: Represented writers (writers who have a manager or agent) are eligible.
7) Eligibility Rule #2: You are not eligible if you have made more than $10,000 as a screenwriter. This does not apply to contest winners, however. You may still submit if you’ve won $10,000 or more in screenwriting contests.
8) The winner will be announced on a date to be determined later!
GOOD LUCK EVERYBODY!
Occasionally in the comments section, a debate will pop up about well-loved scripts that “aren’t movies.” They’re just really good scripts. For the aspiring screenwriter, a debate like this is confusing. What’s the difference? How is it possible to write a good script that would be a bad movie?
I always get anxious during this argument. It takes so much to write a good anything that if you’re restricting yourself in any one area, you’re making an already difficult task even more difficult. The last thing we need is some writer getting traction on a script but believing he’s a failure because, “It’s not a good movie.”
However, I have to admit that there’s something to the argument. There are certain scripts you will write which read well but are doomed on the big screen. Luckily for you, I’m going to tell you what those scripts are, so that even if you decide to write one, you at least know what you’re getting into. And keep in mind that writing a “great script that’s not a great movie” isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s gotten a lot of screenwriters their start in this business.
For ease-of-writing purposes, I’ll be referring to the great script that’s not a great movie as an NGM (not great movie) from here on forward.
The first NGM script is the one without a genre. When you don’t have a genre, you have a film that studios don’t know how to market, and by association, a film that’s not technically a “movie.” The most recent example of this is Passengers. Passengers was known as the best unmade script for a decade. However, once it came out, audiences were like, “Huh?” Is this a sci-fi film like Aliens? No. Is this a love story like Titanic? Not exactly. Is it a comedy? Sort of. Is it a drama? Sometimes. All of these problems were less evident when you were reading it but became enormous once you were making and marketing it. Every once in a blue moon, no-genre scripts will turn into something amazing (Pulp Fiction, Being John Malkovich) but it’s rare enough that it’s like trying to win the lottery. When you stay in the master movie genres (Horror, Action, Thriller, Sci-fi, Comedy) you’re writing a script that’s clearly a movie. Even the less glamorous genres (Drama, Period Piece, Western, Romantic Comedy, Serial Killer) will work. But when you can’t place your script into any known genre, you’re probably writing an NGM.
On the page, “still” doesn’t matter. The reading experience is a static one (you’re sitting down staring at words) so you don’t care as much if the characters and action are still as well. To this end, you can write some pretty good “still” stories. But these scripts will come crashing down once they reach the big screen because, all of a sudden, you’re asking your audience to sit down for 2 hours and watch ZERO movement. “Movies” are synonymous with “movement” so if you don’t have any, you’re going to witness a rapidly borified audience. My introduction into this was Everything Must Go, my favorite script at one time, about a guy who’d been kicked out of his house by his wife and decided to set up a room on his front lawn and continue living there. I loved that script. But once it got to the big screen, all I saw was a man sitting down for two hours. The entire story collapsed. If you’re into “still,” I recommend writing a novel. If you’re writing a movie script, however, make sure your characters are moving towards something, literally. That doesn’t mean you have to write Bad Boys 3. An investigation where the hero is walking from one new clue to the next is fine. But ixnay on the don’t-move-aye.
CHARACTER-DRIVEN (or “TALKING HEADS”) SCREENPLAYS
Every good script should be character driven on some level. But if that’s the ONLY thing going on in your script? If there’s no heightened concept or flashy plot points? You’re probably writing a novel or a TV show, not a movie. A perfect example is a movie like 2010’s “The Kids Are All Right,” or even last year’s “Manchester By The Sea.” These scripts read well (I mean, I hated the Manchester script, but a lot of people liked it). But once they reached the big screen, you’re just watching a lot of talking heads expound emotion. And that’s not good enough for the big screen anymore. People are used to showing up to the theater and seeing 300 million dollar visual spectacles. Two hours of people looking bummed out doesn’t work. The Kids Are All Right is an interesting case because it’s got more of a story to it, but that movie had to be freaking PERFECT just to squeak into the bottom level of the public consciousness. If you’re writing stritcly character driven movies, you may want to move over to TV.
The flip side argument of all this is that there are certain “horrible” scripts that are great movies. The nature of what makes them great onscreen is what hurts them on the page. For example, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are drowning in plot, have a ton of characters, and contain a bunch of cool effects that you can’t see on the page. All these things make them boring reads but “cool” movies. Or a script like La La Land. That movie IS the musical numbers, which you can’t see on the page.
I would agree with all of this up to a certain point. If you’re writing within the system (you’re getting paid to write by the studio), than it’s more important to make your bosses happy than write a script that pleases the masses. But if you’re writing on spec, I’m sorry but you’ve got to pull off both. You’ve got to write something that’s going to work on screen AND on the page. And that’s totally possible.
I hope this helps when choosing which script to write next. Please share your own NGM examples in the comments section in case I missed anything!
Genre: TV Pilot – Drama
Premise: A modern day Indian reservation finds itself in trouble when two rival leaders go toe-to-toe regarding the reservation’s casino.
About: Doug Jung has been scribbling his way up the screenwriting ladder lately, penning the latest Star Trek screenplay, Star Trek Beyond, as well as rewriting the top secret JJ Abrams project, The God Particle, which Jung has re-conceived to make it part of the Cloverfield universe. “Scalped” has been a buzzy project due to it being based on a hip comic book that will star an all Native American cast. No whitewashing here. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that it will appear on WGN America.
Writer: Doug Jung (based on the graphic novel by Jason Aaron)
Details: 64 pages
I read the other day that Mark Wahlberg was creating a comic book called “Alien Bounty Hunter” for the specific purpose of adapting it into a screenplay so he could build a franchise out of it.
Most writers seem baffled by this new trend – that people aren’t creating comic books because they want them to do well as comic books anymore. But so they can quickly turn them around into movie projects.
I used to get pissed off about this as well. It not only seemed like a cheat. But it spotlighted one of the biggest frustrations writers have about the industry – its fear of buying spec scripts straight up.
However, over time, I’ve warmed to the idea. I’ll occasionally read a big-budget script and struggle to understand what it would look like on the big screen. The great thing about comic books are that they give potential buyers a better understanding of what the project will look like. And when you’re putting 100 million dollars into something, don’t you want to know as much as possible about how it’s going to turn out? I know if it was my money, I would.
So all it really is is a hack. It’s the writers way of saying, “Okay, you don’t take chances on the written word? I’m going to use this workaround then.”
Which brings us to Scalped. Scalped is an example of the way that they used to do things. Nobody created this comic in the hopes of turning it into a TV show or a movie. They just wanted to write a badass comic book! And, if you talk to any comic book geek, they’ll tell you they’ve achieved just that. Scalped is supposed to be awesome. Let’s see if that’s the case in TV form.
Chief Lincoln Red Crow is the biggest name on the Lakota Indian Reservation. He owns and runs the Crazy Horse Casino, which is responsible for most of the money that runs through the community.
But you don’t build casinos on Indian reservations without fucking a few people over. And now Red Crow is paying a price for that. His biggest rival, Henry One Star, comes to him claiming he’s had a “vision,” and that to avoid a war, Red Crow needs to close down the casino pronto.
Visions carry weight in Indian reservations, but Red Crow isn’t so sure One Star’s telling the truth. There has to be something motivating him. So Red Crow sends his men out to find out what’s up.
Meanwhile, Red Crow’s investors, the Hmong from China, are pissed off. The whole reason they invested in this place was because Red Crow ran this town. If Red Crow can’t solve minor problems like this one, they’re going to fly in and solve it themselves.
The truth is, Red Crow used to be a bad dude. He wasn’t afraid to shed blood to get what he wanted. But, recently, he’s made a promise to himself to no longer sacrifice his own people, his own culture, to get ahead. When the Hmong suggest killing One Star, Red Crow is vehemently against it. He’s convinced this can be dealt with diplomatically.
Of course, it’s never that easy. And as One Star ups the pressure, as the Hmong up the threats, and as old flames and estranged daughters come back to weigh in on the impending chaos, Red Crow will need to decide if his violent ways are truly behind him.
When you read any script (pilot or feature), you go into this mode of trying to figure out what it is. Is this a kidnapping movie (Taken)? Is this a garden variety procedural (Law and Order)? Is it a soapy character-driven drama (Parenthood)?
While you’re doing this, one of three scenarios occurs. One, it becomes a familiar thing, like the shows I listed above. Two, it never commits to a show-type and ends up becoming this incomprehensible mess. This is basically most of the amateur pilots I read. Or three, which is the direction every writer should be aiming for – it becomes something in between these two worlds, something that feels both familiar yet unpredictable. I’m talking about shows like Lost, like Taboo, like Better Call Saul.
That’s where I see Scalped.
And the first lesson I learned from this script is that when you start with an unfamiliar world – like an Indian reservation – you increase the chances of creating a show that’s unpredictable, because, obviously, it’s hard to predict that which you’ve never seen before.
But make no mistake. Scalped doesn’t rewrite the screenwriting rulebook. Nor should it. Yesterday, we were talking about conflict. And I’ll talk about it again, even if you’re getting sick of it.
You see, in television, conflict is paramount. It’s more important than in features because, unlike features, you don’t have an entertaining plot barreling forward at a hundred miles an hour. You can’t. There are too many episodes, too much time to fill.
The only thing you have left to entertain with, then, is conflict. What’s at the heart of Scalped’s pilot? Two rivals who are gunning for each other. Conflict with a capital “C.”
Even better, Scalped has placed a THING at the center of its plot that creates conflict in every direction it turns – the casino. You could take all of these people in this town, send them away, bring in a whole new set of people, and you’d still have tons of conflict because of this casino. That’s good writing there. Inject shit into your script that creates conflict for you.
The only missteps Scalped makes is in its storytelling. And this is why it’s so hard to write pilots. You have to set up an entire season of storylines, so that means introducing us to people who aren’t going to be interesting right away.
For example, there’s a character, Gina, who works for the government and she’s trying to get historical status for some of the Lakota land. I know this will become relevant in later episodes. But right now, it’s boring as hell, especially when you have the rivalry of Red Crow and One Star in your back pocket. It’s like when I got a Transformer for Christmas but my parents forced me to play with the slinky Uncle Ned bought me. “But daaaaad! Ironside’s right over therrrre!” (cue Carson crying)
If you ask me, I think you should rewrite a pilot until everything’s entertaining. No scene should feel like a boring setup for a storyline to be explored in a future episode. However, I understand that’s easier said than done. Still, in this ultra-competitive TV landscape, you should try.
Bottom line: Scalped is unique and definitely worth checking out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Use your pilot to inject as much conflict into as many things as possible. Remember, conflict is, by definition, unresolved. And since people want to stick around until something gets resolved, it’s in your best interest to create as much conflict as possible. TV is like this sick game. You keep saying to the audience, “This is going to get resolved. You’ll see if you come back next week.” And then next week you say, “I know we didn’t resolve this. But we will soon. Come back next week.” That’s what you’re doing with conflict. You’re creating issues and problems between characters and within the plot itself that remain unresolved for as long as you can get away with it. It’s dirty, but it works.