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So you’re the kind of writer who rolls their eyes whenever someone mentions the Black List. You hear about middle class men needing beaver sock puppets to overcome their bi-polar disorder and upchuck in the nearest fern pot. Charlie Kaufman and Aaron Sorkin would better serve themselves washing your car than writing any more of their garbage. You like your movies dripping with 3-D CGI, not 2-D Philip Seymour Hoffman. And that’s why you got into screenwriting. You want to write these movies. You want to write the next blockbuster.
Well before we can discuss how to do that, we must agree on what a blockbuster is. A “blockbuster” (in Scriptshadow terms) would be any ultra-high budget, high concept, action or adventure film which would likely be slated for a summer or Christmas release. These are the films that allow the studios to pay their bills, and are therefore a “no expenses spared” celebration of Hollywood moviemaking.
We’re going to stay away from nontraditional blockbusters like Avengers (multiple protagonists – built off of pre-established characters) and Titanic (period piece without any traditional set-pieces). We’re also going to avoid films that, even though they did huge business, did so despite their screenplay, not because of it. Films like The Phantom Menace, Transformers, Alice in Wonderland won’t be celebrated here. I’ll instead focus on movies that built their box office on strong ideas and sound execution, as I feel there’s a lot more to learn from them. Films like Raiders of The Lost Ark, Avatar, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Star Wars, Jaws, Inception, and The Matrix.
Okay, it’s time for Obvious Oliver here. But before you write your blockbuster, TEST YOUR CONCEPT! You have to have a big exciting original high-concept idea for your 200 million dollar movie or else none of the advice I’m about to write will matter. You can have the best set-pieces in the world, but if the concept is unmarketable or boring or derivative, nobody’s going to read it. Why would they? They already know they can’t sell it. Make sure you have a cool “Blockbuster worthy” idea before you start writing. This is essential!!!
As for how to approach your blockbuster story, it’s best to stay within the confines of the traditional 3-Act structure. When a studio is spending 200 million dollars, they’re not itching to experiment. They want to stick with what works. That means a first act that a) sets up your main character and b) a central problem that needs to be fixed, a second act where a) the main character tries to fix that problem (his goal) and b) encounters plenty of conflict along the way, and a third act where he takes on the story’s big evil force and defeats it.
If you look at the above movies I mentioned, most of them follow this model. Indy, Brody, Cobb and Jake Sulley are all going after clear goals. Star Wars and The Matrix change things up by giving the mentor characters (Obi-Wan and Morpheus) the goal for the first portion of the story, before handing the reins over to the main character for the rest of the film. Pirates has the wonkiest structure of the bunch, enacting a “see-saw” approach where the goal keeps shifting between three different parties (Will, Jack Sparrow, and Captain Barbossa).
It’s no coincidence, then, that Pirates got knocked around for its complex plot when it first came out. And with that in mind, I’d use that as a lesson when writing your own blockbuster. Make the goal clear. Make the story easy to follow. It doesn’t mean you can’t complicate matters within your story, but the overall plot should be easy to understand. We should always know where we’re going. For example, Inception is a fairly complicated plot, but we always know what the goal is because it was stated up front – they have to place the thought inside Robert Fischer’s head, then get out.
Once you’ve got your three acts all figured out, it’s important to remember why audiences come to these movies. They want a rush. They’re looking for the same sort of excitement one gets from riding on a roller coaster at Six Flags. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have characters with flaws or unresolved relationships. Just that thrills take a high priority in these kinds of movies. For that reason, you’re always looking to shock an audience. You want twists and turns and surprise reveals and double-crosses. That wife who’s been with your hero for ten years? Have her turn on him. That guy who needs the data plans you have in that R-2 unit? Have his planet blow up right before we get there. You gotta keep us on edge in a blockbuster. The audience has to be taken up and down and up and down, just like a roller coaster. The second they feel safe, they’re bored.
Speaking of thrills, you’re going to want a cool villain. Big blockbusters and cool villains go hand-in-hand. So if you don’t have a memorable one, pack it in. There are lots of ways to approach villains. For example, make your villain strong where your main character is weak. But I’m not going to lie, the villains in your blockbuster are going to live or die on their originality and their flash. They have to stick out in some way. They have to be bigger than life. They have to be the kind of person that audiences are going to leave the theater excited to talk about. I read too many average, unoriginal, uninspired villains in amateur specs. Don’t be one of those writers.
But let’s get serious. When you’re talking about blockbusters, you’re talking about action. And that means great SET PIECES. These are the giant action scenes in your movie. After your concept and your main character, it can be argued that great set-pieces are the third most important thing in a blockbuster. That’s because THESE ARE THE SCENES THE STUDIO WILL USE TO MARKET THE MOVIE. If they don’t see anything new or unique in your set-pieces? If you’re not trying to push the envelope in some way? Then don’t bother writing a blockbuster, cause it will never sell.
I saw a script two years ago sell due to a SINGLE SET PIECE. Some of you may remember it. The opening scene had the core of the earth ripped off by a mega-nuclear bomb and our heroes flung into space. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened after that opening because the rest of the script sucked. But I’d NEVER read anything like that set piece before, and neither did the studio who bought it. Which is why they bought it.
In the typical blockbuster, you’ll have 3 or 4 “true” set-pieces. And the first thing you’re going to want to do is make sure they’re ORIGINAL. If they’re a rehash or a copy of something you’ve already seen, delete and start over. It HAS to be different. That’s imperative. Because that’s what studio executives are looking for. They’re looking for that thrill that nobody has seen before. Look at Terminator 2. James Cameron set his car chase set-piece in the Los Angeles viaduct. Ever seen that before? Nope. But he went one step further. This wasn’t one car chasing another. It was a SEMI rig chasing a DIRT BIKE! How fun is that??? Add on two indestructible robots and you had one of the most exciting original never-before-seen set-pieces in movie history. If you can pull this off 4 times in your script, chances are you’re going to get a reader’s attention.
Now where do you put these set-pieces? Well, you probably want one every 30 pages. That means 3 or 4 set pieces total. Where you place these is up to you and is typically dictated by the story itself. The Bond films, for example, like to put a set-piece right up front in the opener. The Empire Strikes Back, however, saves its first major set-piece, the Hoth battle, for 40 minutes in. In general, you’ll have one big set piece in your first act to get everybody all jazzed up. You’re obviously going to have one for your climax. That leaves two set pieces for your second act, whose placement, again, should be dictated by the story.
Another thing you have to remember about blockbusters is that they’re almost always rated PG or PG-13. The studios want to lure in the largest audience possible, so besides a few exceptions (i.e. The Matrix) they’ll stay away from R rated material. This also means the films will typically be light-hearted. Blockbusters (unless they’re directed by Christopher Nolan) should put people in a good mood. They should be fun and exciting (like a roller coaster!). For this reason, you’re going to want humor. And the best place to find that humor is in a “comedic sidekick.”
Now the “comedic sidekick” has gotten a bad rap over the years. That’s because it used to mean a side character who was actually funny. Then someone decided to turn it into a “thing” (the COMEDIC SIDEKICK!) and everyone started taking it literally. The result was a bunch of empty characters whose only job was to spew out cheesy one-liners. Avoid that “comedic sidekick” if possible. Instead, remember that there are different kinds of funny, that you don’t have to follow the traditional definition of a comedic character. Jack Sparrow is funny for being clueless. Han Solo is funny for being an asshole. The comedic sidekick in the The Dark Knight was the villain, The Joker, who definitely has his own sense of funny. Regardless, it’s a good idea to have funny in your blockbuster. Studios want people to laugh during their blockbuster trailers. They want them to feel good. People who feel good go see those movies.
Some final things you want to keep in mind. Don’t go TOO thin on the story. Despite the emphasis on things like thrills and villains, you still gotta keep us invested. I see too many blockbuster writers depending on their action scenes, essentially writing a bunch of fluff in between them. Ask yourself if your story is interesting without the action. There’s gotta be SOMETHING dramatically going on to keep us interested for 2 hours. So even though story isn’t AS important in the blockbuster genre, the better yours is, the more likely it is your script will sell.
Also, make sure your blockbuster BUILDS. In general, you want the feeling like we’re climbing stairs during your story. With each step, we get higher, and the further up we get, the further we can fall. This means fights get bigger, stakes get bigger, battles get bigger, chase scenes get bigger. During each stage of the script, make sure what’s happening is bigger than what happened before. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course. The Hoth Battle in Empire is the biggest set-piece in the film. But in a traditional blockbuster, we should feel the story building , with the final climax being the biggest moment of all, where everything for everyone is on the line.
Blockbusters are made to entertain, which means many of the superficial elements I typically rail against on the site become important in this world. I’ve struggled with this notion because the idealist in me has always believed that the better the story, the better a chance your script has at selling. But there’s no doubt that in the blockbuster world, if you come up with a kick ass concept, a memorable main character, and three amazing set pieces, you can sell your script to the right buyer. So make sure those elements are in place. Still, keep in mind that readers want to be taken away by a story. So if you can add a great story to all this, your chances of selling your blockbuster spec go up exponentially. There just aren’t that many writers who are good at both of these things. So if you’re one of the few who are, you can go a long way in this business.
Is one of the most hated movies of the year really in my Top 10??
I have to admit I was a little disappointed by this year’s crop of films. There was nothing that truly wowed me, that I HAD to recommend to my friends. There should be 2 or 3 movies a year where as soon as they’re over, you call your friends and say, “You have to see this now!” That’s not to say it hasn’t been an interesting year in film. We had a lot of stories, starting with the trilogy-closing Dark Knight Rises. I think Nolan’s penchant for extending his stories out past traditional run-times really hurt him on this one. The film clearly felt 45 minutes too long. Skyfall was adequate, but hardly recommend-worthy. The Hobbit is more a talking-piece than a film (it’s impossible to see that film in 48fps and not want to discuss the technology afterwards). I wish I liked Family Guy more as “Ted” appeared to be the breakout shocker of the year. “Safe House” was also pretty good for what was a safe (no pun intended) script. It also became the second-highest grossing movie of the year that came from a (true) spec script, at 126 million (Snow White And the Huntsman was number 1 at 155 million). No spec script films made it into the top 10. :) Let’s try and change that in 2013, guys.
The Bourne Legacy lost its mojo with the exit of Matt Damon. Argo was decent, but carried with it a strange seriousness that was always at odds with its outlandish true story. I’m still not sure why Judd Apatow made a movie based around the two most annoying characters from Knocked Up. But I was surprised to find that I actually liked the comedy crop of 2012. The Campaign, That’s My Boy, and The Dictator were all funny. None of the three were good enough to make my top 10, but they all made me laugh pretty consistently. It’s another reminder that you never know with comedies. I didn’t like the scripts for The Campaign or That’s My Boy, but the comedic mastery of those actors totally saved the projects (Will Ferrell is hilarious in The Campaign).
A few movies that I didn’t get to see but wanted to were Wreck-It Ralph, Cloud Atlas, and End Of Watch. I haaaated the End Of Watch script but everyone who sees it tells me it’s great. I hope it is. I’m always fascinated by bad scripts that become good movies. So I’ll be seeing that one soon. Oh, and there was one other movie I forgot to put on my Worst Of 2012 List yesterday: “The Watch!” What the heck was up with that movie??? Four guys sit around for 90 minutes. That’s the movie! That was one of the strangest viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Literally NOTHING happens. Anyway, enough of the trashing. It’s time to celebrate cinema. Here are my Top 10 films of 2012.
10) The Avengers/The Hunger Games – As much as I love good writing, I also enjoy seeing what happens when Hollywood goes all in on a movie. I love to see where they put their money. I love to see the latest advancement in special effects. I love to be taken somewhere I’ve never been before. Plopping down in that seat and turning off my brain off for two hours is a welcome relief from all the analyzing I have to do. Does that mean these movies were great? Hell no. If any of you said, “Yeah, but Carson, Plot Point A from Avengers is terrible and Decision C from Hunger Games is stupid,” I probably wouldn’t argue with you. But that doesn’t matter as much when you have Hulk smashing. Or Iron Man and Thor fighting (despite the fact that there’s no reason for them to!). And you know, I LIKED the setup for Hunger Games. Do I wish it would’ve been rated R so that we REALLY saw what happens when kids fight each other to the death? Sure, but of course that movie will never be made. For a PG-13 treatment of the idea, however, I thought they did a pretty good job. These movies were vaporware. I’ll never see them again. But for the 2 hours I sat there and watched them in the theater? They were fun!
9) Prometheus – I almost didn’t include this one just because of how much shit I’d get in the comments section for it. But then I put my big boy pants on and buckled up because I LIKED this movie. And no one’s going to convince me that I didn’t! I still believe a lot of the blowback has to do with franchise expectations and a killer trailer that promised a classic. I went into this with no expectations and didn’t see that trailer. So I wasn’t burdened by these things. And what I got was a compelling interplanetary mystery. A group of scientists head to a remote planet to inspect what could be the origins of mankind. Shit goes wrong. Sounds cool to me! The thing is, it’s hard to present a contained story like this where monsters/baddies aren’t chasing our characters around. Without them, the story can feel a little slow. You could make the argument that not much “happened” in Prometheus (if you weren’t into the mystery) until the third act. But I was into the mystery. I wanted to find out who these big bald white dudes were. So I was down til the final frame. I loved the production design. I loved the way the film was shot. I thought the acting was top notch. I loved the surprises in the plot. This movie was fun, and not even close to how bad you guys think it is. You wanna see what TRUE bad looks like? Watch this video. You’ll have a new found appreciation for Prometheus.
8) Jiro Dreams Of Sushi – It may appear as if I’m trying to gain some geek street cred after celebrating one of movie geeks’ most hated films of the year. I mean, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the most film snob of choices: A foreign documentary with subtitles! But I loved this movie and let me tell you why. It’s about the best Sushi Chef in the world. His restaurant received the elusive 3-star Michelin award. For those who don’t know what that means, it means that food critics believe the restaurant is good enough JUST TO FLY INTO THE COUNTRY FOR. But what I really like about this movie was that you could just as easily apply the lessons learned to screenwriting. Just like screenwriting, creating sushi is a craft. It looks simple. Just add rice and a piece of raw fish (just words on a page). But it takes thousands of hours to perfect that craft (sound familiar?). Jiro is so meticulous that when he’s serving a party, he actually makes the sushi pieces for the women a little smaller than the ones for the men, so that they all finish at the same time. You will never look at sushi (and maybe screenwriting) the same way again after watching this film, which you can find on Netflix streaming.
7) Chronicle – I love when writers take ideas and evolve them. The found footage thing was reaching its breaking point in the horror genre. So to move it over to high school kids discovering a mysterious glowing object and developing super powers was kind of genius. The movie’s not perfect (no film on this list is, unfortunately) and they probably overplay the amount of abuse its main character had to go through (the scenes with daddy beating hero were ridiculously over-the-top), but you also have to commend the film for wrapping its story around an anti-hero, something you don’t see in many mainstream movies not named “Pirates Of The Caribbean” these days. And I don’t know, seeing it all go down via hand-held video gave it a realistic feel the movie never would’ve accomplished had it been shot traditionally. The effects were good too! Chronicle was a nice surprise.
6) The Grey – It’s impossible for me to disassociate this viewing experience from my original reading experience. For those who don’t know, I went gaga over this script when I first read it. And I was constantly getting updated on the movie as it went through various stages of development/production. To see it come to screen felt a little bit surreal. The big difference, I felt, between the film and the script, was that the film felt a little more hopeless, a little more depressing. I don’t know why, but I felt hopeful while reading the screenplay. Maybe in the way Ottway challenged those wolves. How he always knew what to do. And, of course, when he finally takes the Alpha on in the end (which wasn’t shown in the movie). I wish the movie would’ve embodied more of that hope. Despite that, the script nailed everything else that made the script great. You felt for Ottway. Neeson delivered those amazing voice overs perfectly (and his performance overall was awesome). The plane crash was great. The conflict between the characters was great. The conflict between the humans and wolves was great. There were a few slow spots, but overall, I really liked this one. Still think he should’ve fought that wolf though!
5) Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson is back! He found his mojo! Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited were okay, but they felt like he was treading water. Moonrise proves that Anderson is best when he’s dealing with the awkwardness of youth. This is the way a love story should be told, dipped in messiness and rolled in weirdness. I LOVED the performances of the two leads, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. I loved that Anderson wasn’t afraid to push the envelope with their love, going places you’re not going to see in any Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants sequels. I do wish Anderson would continue to evolve the look of his films. It’d be nice to see an occasional frame without everybody centered in it and staring at the camera, but hey, that’s his voice. And it worked nicely for Moonrise.
4) Zero Dark 30 – It’s dark. It’s serious. It’s a lot of un-botoxed people in rooms having important conversations. But it’s also good! I have to give it to Boal and Bigelow. They gave us a tension-filled thriller with an amazing climax. Do I wish the thing were shorter? Of course. Do I wish Jessica Chastain would’ve smiled once during the movie? Sure. I think if that character would’ve been more charismatic, more interesting – if we had known more about her, this film could’ve been a classic. The wall they put between us and her really hurt the film because she’s our connection to this story. We needed to get inside of her (that sounded wrong). But outside of that, this really did feel like how it would be behind the scenes in the hunt for Bin Laden. And it’s also another endorsement for the Goal-oriented screenplay. Make the goal big enough, and you’ll have us wrapped around your finger til the very end!
3) Silver Linings Playbook – Again, it’s the same advice I just gave you with Moonrise. If you’re going to write a love story, give us something different. We’ve seen the normal stuff a billion times over. You’re going to bore us to pieces if you do it again. Playbook has a main character who just got out of the nuthouse, a romantic interest who just lost her husband, fucked every guy at her work, and who is ALSO crazy, and the two enter a dance competition together, of all things. It’s just so bizarre. But it also works! — Was interesting to see that the big change from the draft I read was the betting stuff with the dad. That wasn’t in the script. My guess is that with Robert De Niro playing the father, they needed to beef up his role. Hence the change. It’s a great screenwriting lesson actually. Write every character as if you’re trying to snag a big actor. You’ll find yourself looking for unique interesting things to do with the character you never would’ve thought of had you been writing somebody “normal.” This is easily the best date movie of the year.
2) Django Unchained – It’s funny walking into a film and knowing you’re going to love it. I mean this script was PHE-NOM-E-NAL. But then how is Django Unchained only number 2 on my list? Wasn’t this a Gangbusters shoe-in for number 1? Well, here’s the thing. I’m not a huge Jaime Foxx fan, and I’m kinda surprised Quentin cast him. I thought he was going to pull a Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds and pluck somebody out of obscurity we’d never heard of, or at least someone we hadn’t heard of for a long time. Foxx was the safest casting choice Tarantino’s made in a major role in his entire career. I was hoping I’d be wrong and Foxx would nail it, but I’m not sure he did. He was good, just not great. But outside of that, I thought DiCaprio was awesome. I love Waltz in anything, and he was great here. I loved Sam Jackson, who was a perfect villain. And all the scenes played out just as amazingly as they did on the page. Oh, and let’s not forget the only part of Tarantino’s scripts you don’t get in the script – the soundtrack! Once again, Tarantino proves he’s a master in this area. This is one of the only films I saw this year that I’ll be seeing again. Awesome stuff!
1) Life Of Pi – They say the movies that leave the biggest impression on you are the ones that burrow deep down inside your soul and challenge you to face things you’re either afraid of or never considered before. I’m not the most religious person in the world, but faith and religion do fascinate me. (spoiler) Life Of Pi finishes with an amazing question: “Which story do you believe?” I don’t want to spoil it by going any deeper than that, because the twist ending is what sets this film apart, but it’s a cool challenge the movie sets forth. The main character says he has a story that’ll make you believe in God. And Ang Lee did a pitch-perfect job of bringing that story to life. I thought this book was un-adaptable. And he found a way to make it even better! This is the only movie I’ve seen since Avatar that I’d recommend seeing in 3-D. There are these amazing shots both under and above water that have you double-checking your glasses to see if you’re really in the theater. The sinking ship with our main character treading water while watching hopelessly in the foreground has to be the best shot I saw in 2012. The acting from Old Pi is phenomenal. You want to talk about deserving an Oscar – Irrfan Khan puts everybody this year to shame. Even the kid who played Pi, who I was the most worried about, did great. This is a visual masterpiece with a heartwrenching friendship between a boy and a tiger with an ending that’ll make you question everything you know. The best film of 2012 for me!
Get down with the requisite Prometheus bashing, then tell me what your favorite movies of the year were! And stay tuned for Friday as I unleash my top 10 favorite amateur scripts of the year!
My favorite writer is back! John Jarrell. You may remember him from the awesome interview I did with him a few months ago. The guy has a ton of screenwriting knowledge and unlike us hack bloggers, the man’s actually been in the thick of it for 20 years, fighting the good screenwriting fight, landing those six figure jobs we all dream of. Which is why I’m more than happy to promote his new screenwriting class – Tweak Class — starting this January. Who better to learn from than the guy who’s seen it all? Goddamit, he’s even taken his pants off for a publicity shot (that’s really him above!). This man is dedicated. And today, he’s going to share with us a couple screenwriting stories from Hollywood Hell. I enjoyed this piece so much I told John he needs to write a whole book of this stuff. Let him know if you feel the same in the comments!
“Will You Please Buy My Script Now, Please?” — One Writer’s Journey Into the Troubling Bowels of Development.
By John Jarrell
Back in 1995, I wrote a Horror spec called The Willies. It was essentially Carrie with Evil Twins. People are constantly abusing and shitting on these orphans, until at last, after making a pact with the devil, they take their bloody revenge.
My agent went out with it and immediately got a sadistically low-ball pre-emptive bid from a smaller studio in town. By that point in my life, my dream of becoming a legitimate screenwriter was nearing extinction. I’d been struggling in L.A. for four years, was stone-cold broke, about to lose my apartment, and my girlfriend and I were subsisting solely on the 49-cent value menu at Taco Bell. Facing even more of that ugliness, I did what struggling young writers have to do sometimes — I sucked it up and took the shit money, simply glad to survive and hopeful I would live to fight another day.
First day working, I go into a story meeting with the company’s “Creative” VP and Head of Development. We dug in and spent several hours doing notes starting Page One — discussing what they thought worked, what didn’t, and what I’d need to address in my rewrite.
At one point, the VP looks up at me and says, “Wow, John. This description on page fifty-two is really good writing. Would you mind reading it out loud?”
Flattery will get you everywhere with a screenwriter, and I’m sure I flushed with pride as I found the page and paused to clear my throat.
The set up was simple — a grieving daughter (our protagonist) looking through her deceased Mother’s belongings, which have been boxed up and stored in the attic. The beat offered a brief respite from all the genre action, gave us a further glimpse into our lead’s character, and prompted her discovery of an important clue at the end.
This was the description I wrote, verbatim —
“She rifles several of the boxes, finding little more than old letters and checkbook stubs, key chains and their forgotten keys. The meaningless remnants of our too brief lives.”
There was a long pause after I finished. The VP and Head of Development were nodding their heads in synchronized approval. Then the VP says —
“Yeah, it’s really great. Great stuff.”
“Lose the poetry, John, cut it all out. It’s slowing down the script.”
I’d never been quite so close to crapping my pants. Did he just say LOSE… THE… POETRY? a.k.a. LOSE THE GOOD WRITING? Wantonly kill off two short sentences — two sentences he actually likes — which perfectly sell the moment? And replace them with what, Mr. Hemingway? “She opens her dead mom’s shit and finds a mysterious clue!”
Like every other indignant scribe in Hollywood history, I sat hooded in a queasy half-smile, cerebral cortex locking up. Surely “development” couldn’t be like this everywhere? Surely this exec must be a nutter, a lone gunman of sorts, some soulless script assassin who didn’t value lightweight artistry over the groan-inducing stock lines which had been stupefying readers for decades?
But I was wrong. He wasn’t the slightest bit insane. In fact, Mr. Company VP was the Gold Standard — an Industry veteran and Number Two guy at the whole company! And if I didn’t “lose the poetry” voluntarily, believe me, he would have no qualms hiring another low-ball writer to lose it for me.
Way back at NYU, an older studio vet had once shared a bit of sage wisdom with me — “It’s better for you to fuck up your script the way they want then have ‘em hire somebody else to fuck it up for you.”
As baffling and counterintuitive as his advice had seemed, now I grabbed onto it like a life vest. I labored at “losing the poetry”, beat after tight beat, good scene after good scene. For nine agonizing months, they “developed” the script this way. Any nugget of goodness was ruthlessly ferreted out, any clever turn of phrase or interesting character tick was quickly sandblasted into beige. My reward, such as it was, was being kept onboard on as sole writer.
Finally, they were ready to go out with it. And they did. And in a matter of three short weeks, the company blew a sure-thing co-financing deal, flatlined similar offers via absurd distribution demands, then shelved the project out of self-loathing and/or shame, never to see daylight again. Their epic fail also left The Big Question still looming — Had sacrificing all my poetry to the Commercial Film Gods made my script better… or worse? Now, tragically, there was no way I’d know for sure.
Instead of my project — and I’m totally NOT kidding here — the company produced the urban side-splitter “Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood” in its place. It survived three demoralizing weekends before being euthanized and laid to rest in the VHS market.
During what I thought a poignant last ditch appeal, before all the lights had been turned out, I’d made the case to the company that horror was an American genre mainstay, essentially a license to print money when well-executed. This is what that same VP told me —
“Horror’s dead, John. Nobody wants horror anymore. It’s all about the urban audience.”
Scream opened that same December and made $173,046,663 worldwide. In its wake, an uninterrupted avalanche of extremely profitable low-budget horror pics overran the coming decade.
And me? Exactly one year after the sale, my girlfriend and I found ourselves back at Taco Bell.
* * * * *
Those first professional cuts for any young writer are excruciating. Everything about your script — every flat character, every lousy throwaway line, every unnecessary parenthetical — feels personal and inviolate, gifted from the heavens and written in stone, like some multimedia take on Moses’ holy tablets.
“Change something? Why? It was plenty good enough for you to buy it in the first place, wasn’t it, douchebag?”
Some version of this is what the working writer yearns to bark in his benefactors’ (read: torturers’) faces. If you loved it enough to put real money behind it, why in the fuck do you want to change every last thing about it now? Why date a tall, skinny brunette if you really wanted a short, squat redhead? Where’s the logic in that?
This mentality is, of course, completely understandable. The script is quite literally your baby, your winning Powerball ticket, the lone vehicle by which you hope and pray to escape the nagging self-doubt and just-getting-by poverty of a middle class kid with a mountain of student loans. This is your shot — perhaps the one and only shot you’re gonna get — and if it’s mishandled somehow, if somebody shits the bed and drops the ball, you and you alone will pay the ultimate price for that.
On the other hand… there’s a couple big problems with sticking by your guns every damned time. One, without question, you’ll be replaced as soon as your steps are up, and most likely won’t work for that company or any of those people again. Producers hate writers as it is, see them as largely unnecessary evils. Certainly nobody wants to work with a “difficult” one sitting in meetings with his or her fingers jammed in their ears.
Two, and this can be a tough one for us writers to swallow, what if all these developmental numbskulls are actually right??? What if a few of those “shitty notes” you keep bad-mouthing to friends turn out to be gems, pure gold, BIG IDEAS that help take your script to that hallowed “next level”? Some writers are so busy being defensive that they’re throwing away the very ideas which can dramatically increase their odds of success… and survival.
So John, you ask, how in the hell do I know when to do what? How do I discern between the gold and the gravel, the shit and the pony? How can I insure I do the right thing creatively while traversing such treacherous industry tundra?
And that, my friends, is the eternal question every writer faces, every time they book a gig. Because there aren’t any right answers one-hundred percent of the time. The whole endeavor is entirely subjective, a complete crapshoot, with the looming possibility of some ravenous tiger waiting to bite your head off behind every corner.
Your creative action — or inaction — affects not only this project, but the possibility of the many unseen projects yet to come. Of prominent producers and execs putting in a good word, greasing the skids for a full-freight first draft at 100% of your quote… or not. Of you being able to pay off those loans, buy your hard-working parents a house of their own, live the creative lifestyle you’ve always dreamt of and suffered so damned much trying to actualize…
Best advice I’ve heard? “You’ve got to choose your hills to die on.”
But hey, no pressure, right? Best of luck on those pages.
* * * * *
Spring of 1999, I was coming off saving a film for a big studio. My stock was high and I was starting to make my first legitimate splash.
After years of obscure, unpaid laboring, I was really feeling it, finally discovering my groove. All that “woodshedding” had vastly improved my writing. It was becoming much better crafted and far more intuitive. Better still, proof of this breakthrough was now coming across on the page, for anyone and everyone to see.
A hungry young agency saw it and took me on, and they had enough juice to start getting me into the right rooms. As every artisan in Hollywood knows, if you can’t get into the room, you sure as hell can’t get the job. My new agents totally had my back in that department and very quickly it became plug and play — they’d send me out, after that, everything else was on me. As you might imagine, this was a really good time for a young writer.
So… as a last ditch effort, the big studio had hired me, and against all rational odds, I’d saved their movie. Not only that, but to everybody’s further surprise, it became a big hit.
In this town, you always strike while the iron’s hot. My agents quickly set me up with a very famous director, one of the old school legends, in fact. There was a new company in town spending real money, and he’d set up a project there. All they needed now was a writer.
We met on his studio lot, the Director and I immediately hitting it off. This guy was a blast, regaling me with wild tales of ’70’s Hollywood, each more x-rated hilarious than the last. These were the classic movies I’d grown up with and deeply loved, back to front I knew them all. Now here I was talking to the guy who’d actually made some of them! For a good hour we jawed warp-speed, then spent maybe ten minutes talking broad strokes about his project. It was to be a modern-day Robin Hood — the big twist was casting a famous Brazilian MMA fighter as the lead and setting it in the violent ghettos of inner city L.A.
Now remember, this is ’99, way before the whole MMA/UFC thing fully turned the corner. But within two years, Dana White and Co. would radically reinvent the marketing of that world and find themselves sitting on a multi-billion dollar business.
So in a way — even though it wasn’t on purpose — the Director’s idea of casting an MMA superstar with international appeal in a kick-ass action film was perfectly timed. By the time it was ready to roll out, the U.S. would be beginning its new love affair with the UFC. And we’d be standing there waiting with lightning in a bottle, boffo box office certain to ensue.
I drove back home. Two hours later (just two hours!) my agent calls. Business affairs from this new company had called and made an offer — $100K against $275, or 100/275 in film biz parlance. The Director was crazy about me and knew immediately I was the perfect guy for the job. Just like that it became a spontaneous four-way love fest; Company, Famous Director, Agents, Me. My cup runneth over with this highly-addictive first burst of adulation.
It was pretty hard to wrap my head around. A guaranteed ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS for drinking a free bottle of Evian and listening to one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers tell epic war stories? For just being (GASP!) me???
Abruptly, the lightbulb went on. So THIS is what everybody was chasing. Everyone knew there were heaps of money to be made — Monopoly money, from where I was standing. But what about having all the heavyweight ego-stroking a film-addled shut-in like myself could desire? Wasn’t that shit awesome, too?
Next came a company meet-and-greet to discuss our collective vision for the project. My honeymoon continued unabated. We were all on the same page! We all agreed EXACTLY what this film should aspire to! From the top down, everybody on-board was euphoric with developmental glee!
Our homage to Robin Hood would be set in the impoverished jungles of East L.A. Our Lead, forced to flee Brazil because of his heroic actions against homicidal police, would join his Uncle in L.A. to start building a new life for himself. But after witnessing dehumanizing oppression in the sweatshops, and running afoul of local gangsters who violently extorted and terrorized the good-hearted (but powerless) immigrants who had befriended him, our Lead is compelled to take the law into his own hands, seeing justice done, whatever the cost. I was urged to think of the story as gritty, raw and realistic — “Robin Hood ’99” if you will, with someone like Jay-Z playing Friar Tuck.
Robin Hood is one of the oldest legends in all of Western Civilization, and for good reason. The timeless themes of rich vs. poor, the corrupt haves vs. the honest have-nots, still speak as loudly to audiences today as they did in Medieval times. So our ripped-from-the-headlines take involving sweatshops and immigrant labor, oppression and cultural inequality, would fit perfectly alongside the honorable intent of the original.
After a few frenzied white-guy high-fives (“I love this guy!” from one goofy exec), and another complementary bottle of Evian, I was sent off to knock out a treatment so we could quickly proceed to first draft.
* * * * *
Ensconced back in my bungalow, I set about creating my masterpiece. Like I said, I was totally in my wheelhouse at this point, doing the very best writing of my young career. I buckled down and poured my heart and soul into the idea. I skipped concerts, cancelled dates, ate nothing but bad Chinese and Mexican delivery. Day and night, I labored to make the story not just a kick-ass MMA thrill ride — the essential dynamic of the entire project in the first place — but a film which would actually have something to say as well.
I saw it as a classic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too opportunity — killer action and ultra-cool, franchisable genre characters, with a timely message to the contemporary audience nestled behind all the head-butting and hard talk.
Listen, end of the day, if all you wanted was to see somebody’s trachea stomped into tomato soup, or some asshole’s nutsack blown off, yeah, you would get that in spades. I mean, this was a MOVIE afterall, mass escapist entertainment. But for the more discerning genre lover (like myself) there would also be a legitimate subtext they could hang their hats on. A little something… more.
One month later I submitted my twelve-page, single-spaced treatment. I was anxious, but extremely confident. Never had I felt better about the work and what I was trying to accomplish. I believed it awesome that Hollywood execs were willing to push for a meaningful story, even within the confines of a tiny little genre pic like this. Maybe the self-serving, head-up-ass development stereotypes I’d been brutalized by before would be proven wrong this time around.
A week passed. Then a second. Neither my agent nor myself heard so much as a whisper.
Believe me, if there’s anything a writer learns in Hollywood, it’s this — the silence is deafening.
Silence is never good. Silence says disinterest, displeasure or — scariest of all — disappointment. When you put finished pages someone paid for in their impatient little palms and they don’t get back to you a.s.a.p. something is terribly and irrevocably wrong. In my experience, there are no exceptions to this rule.
Sure enough, start of week three we finally got word. It wasn’t good. Let’s just say nobody loved it. The company didn’t hate it initially, per se, but the Director’s people did. They loathed it with a passion. Which meant the company had to start hating it as well.
Judgment Day came in the company’s flagship conference room. Picture a Hudsucker Proxy-sized oak conference table, all five of my company inquisitors massed at the far end, and me — best of intentions, isolated, confused — docked in a half-mast Aeron chair at the other.
The Head of Development led the prosecution. He was a real trip, an IMAX D-Guy Cartoon, 3D cells brightly penciled in by Pixar. We’re talking Aliens level development exec here, with him playing the egg-laying Queen, not one of the day-player xenomorphs. For the safety of all involved, let’s call him Producer X.
“This treatment is too preachy, too grim, too goddamn G-L-O-O-M-Y,” his first salvo whistled across my bow. “Where’s the fun in this world, John? The Lethal Weapon III of it all? The wink-wink, the hijinx, the Wow Factor?”
Where’s the fun in… illegal immigration? In the callous rich taking advantage of the struggling poor? Is that what he was asking?
“Look, John, trust me — it’s not THAT BAD down there. There are plenty of happy stories to tell. Happy stories which give those people plenty of hope.”
Whoops. My Spidey Sense began an ugly twitch. “Down there.” “Those people.” This couldn’t be going anywhere good.
“To some, you know, this might sound controversial. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway, ’cause frankly I’m not a P.C. person and I don’t give a damn,” Producer X leaned forward now, Sunday smile, as if confiding in me. “You know what? I have a maid, and she’s an illegal. That’s right. An illegal. And guess what, John? She LOVES working for me. Loves it! She couldn’t be happier!”
“Me too.” The famous director’s D-Girl piped up. “My husband and I have an illegal nanny. Always smiling, that woman. Very Zen.”
“In fact,” Producer X blazed on, “Recently I had a bit of a funny conundrum. My maid’s daughter was having her quinceañera, and she told me they didn’t have enough decorations for it. So guess what I did? This is great — I let her go around the house and gather up all the old flowers that had been there a few days and take those to the party! Isn’t that terrific? She was soooooo happy.”
There was one exec in the room I’d met before, a good guy, coming from the right place. I watched the same horrified shockwave blitzkrieg across his face that I already wore on mine. So they weren’t all Replicants, I thought. Thank Christ.
Oversharing kills. No doubt, I’m every inch as white boy as the next white motherfucker out there. But there was one huge problem.
I wasn’t that kind of white.
Both my mother and father had Ph.D.’s from Teachers College at Columbia. Their specialties? Education for Gifted Minority Students. My girlfriend was Hispanic, a social worker born literally — true shit — in a dirt-floored shack in Pacoima. So yeah, this probably wasn’t going to work out too well.
All this time, Scriptshadow Reader, I’d been racking my brain, trying to figure out why they hated my treatment so much, why everyone was acting like I’d totally butt-fucked the pooch on this one. Now it hit me full-force — my pages were too, well, Robin Hood. I’d done exactly what we’d agreed upon, gotten it pitch perfect… which was criminally out of tune for these folks.
Class struggle? Rich vs. Poor? What was I thinking? They envisioned our heroic Brazilian as a grubby street urchin, crashing Beverly Hills parties, stuffing his shirt with hors d’oeuvre and stealing thick wads of cash from mink coat pockets. Which is precisely the take they pitched me.
Everything quickly became a vague blur, Charlie Brown’s teacher shot-gunning syllabic nonsense. The only part I remember was Producer X’s take on our protagonist — “It’s like Ché Guevara. He was sexy, he was hot, did a couple of cool killings. Cinematic stuff, right?”
Talk about mind-fucks. Their collective brainstorm now was to take the Robin Hood out of Robin Hood. Regrettably, it was kind of, well, getting in the way.
Meeting over, we shook hands with the nauseous smiles of strangers who’d eaten the same rotten shellfish. I grabbed my ’66 Bug — the same car I’d driven out to L.A. eight years earlier — and puttered straight up Wilshire to my agent Marty’s office.
When I walked in, I just unloaded. Play by play, line by line, vomiting up details of the nuclear winter I’d just lived through. From Marty’s expression, I could see he was having trouble making sense of it all. He knew my background, knew the guy I was, but still. After I’d slaked my desperate need to rant, I punctuated things with this cute little gem —
“They can keep the money,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
In Marty’s entire life, I don’t think a single client had ever told him that. And why would they? Idealism and moral outrage are the privilege of a rarified few in this Biz. At the grunt level, the level I was at, those concepts played worse than kiddie porn. Besides, who the fuck was I? Claude Rains in Casablanca? “I’m shocked, shocked to find that half-baked racism is going on here!” It’s not like I’d signed up for the Peace Corps or anything.
Still, I had my principles, and I was willing to put all that Monopoly money where my naive pie-hole was. Marty’s advice was to go home, cool my tool and let him do some reconnaissance. Once he’d sussed things out, he’d get back to me.
Two things bailed me out. First, the exec I knew called Marty and totally vouched for my eyewitness testimony (told you he was a good guy). Second, Producer X himself knew how badly he’d fucked up and called trying to smooth things over. “Listen, Marty,” he told my agent, “This is a big misunderstanding. Nobody over here wants to make an… irresponsible movie.”
They scheduled a second meeting trying to salvage things, but in many ways it was worse than the first. My time was spent daydreaming about putting Producer X in a chokehold and pulling a Sharky’s Machine — pile-driving us through the plate glass and then plummeting 200 feet straight down to the pavement below.
So that’s it. The deal died. They paid for the treatment, and I — insisting on principle — left the other $65,000 sitting on the table. SIXTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Just walked away from it. And yeah, it kinda stings to write this, even now.
You may have wondered — what about the Famous Director, the one guy who surely would’ve had your back? Predictably, after that first, glorious filmic dry-humping, I neither saw nor heard from him again. No phone call. No nothing. To this day, I don’t know if he actually hated it, or his D-Girl with the illegal nanny had cut my throat without giving him the real scoop on any of what went down.
And Producer X? Was there any Bad Karma due a producer like that? Would the bold heavens take a stand and angrily smite down what the film industry itself would not?
You’re fuckin’ kidding, right? This is the Film Biz.
A few years later, I was over at some friends’ place watching the Oscars on auto-pilot. About ten hours in, after two dozen absurd dance numbers, they finally got around to Best Picture.
And who should win but Producer X.
This go ’round I did crap my pants. Openly and without restraint. But this wasn’t even rock bottom. Because up next was his acceptance speech —
“I’m soooooo happy you’ve taken my movie into your hearts, this wonderful little film about compassion, racial harmony, the end of prejudice of all kinds, and, of course, hope. Always hope, for all those people less fortunate than ourselves.”
Producer X had just won an Oscar. That’s right. A fucking Academy Award. By playing the “Can’t we all just get along?” card.
Before he even left the stage, I was stumbling into the backyard, begging the hostess for a frenzied bong hit. A writer can only take so much, you see, and my mind was dangerously close to snapping. My only real hope of retaining any sanity now lay in a bright, protective sheen of cannabis.
As I slipped into oblivion, a single thought ran roughshod through my mind —
“I wonder if Producer X’s illegal maid is back at his house watching this, too.”
Carson again. Naturally, I’m asking the same question you are. Who the hell was the producer?? John refuses to name names, but I will find out. Mark my words! In the meantime, head over to John’s Tweak Class Page and sign up for his screenwriting class that starts this January. It truly is a unique opportunity to study with a produced, working writer. You won’t be disappointed!
Premise: (from IMDB) With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
About: This is the next Quentin Tarantino film, coming out Dec. 25. Django Unchained stars Jaime Foxx as Django, Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schultz, Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, and Samuel Jackson in the fearsome role of Candie’s 2nd hand man, Stephen. QT has wanted to do something with slavery for awhile, but not some big dramatic “issues” movie. He wanted to do more of a genre film. Hence, we got Django Unchained!
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Details: 167 pages, April 26th, 2011 draft
These days, much of the time, I read scripts with a workman-like focus. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading. I love breaking down screenplays. But there’s always another script to read, another friend or consult or review to get to. Which means I have to stay focused, I have to get everything done.
Rarely do I read a script where I turn off the script analysis side of my brain and just enjoy the story. It happens two or three times a year. With Django, it actually went beyond that. Halfway through the script, I was so pulled in, I canceled everything and made a night of the second half of Django. I cooked dinner. I opened a nice bottle of wine. I pushed back deep into the crevice of my couch. I ate, drank and read.
Okay okay, so I didn’t actually cook anything. It was a lean cuisine meal. And I popped open a bottle of coke, not wine. I hate wine. But the point is, Django Unchained was that rare reading experience where the rest of the world disappeared and I just found myself transported into another universe.
And you know what? I’m not sure why the hell this thing worked so well. It was 168 pages. There was usually more description than was needed. Many scenes went on for ten pages or longer. BUT, Tarantino found a way to make it work. What that way is, I can only guess. Maybe it’s his voice? The way he tells stories makes all these no-nos become hell-yeahs. And that’s not to say he bucks all convention. There’s plenty of traditional storytelling going on here. It’s just presented in a way we’ve never quite seen before.
Django’s a slave who’s recently been purchased by a plantation owner. Part of a bigger group, the slaves are being transported to the new owner’s farm. There are a lot of nasty motherfuckers in this screenplay, guys way worse than the brothers pulling Django along this evening, but these men are still the kind that need a good bullet in the head to remind them of just how shitty they are.
Enter an upper-class German gentleman who appears out of the woods like a ghost. Dr. King Schultz is as smart as they come and as polite as you’ll ever see, and he’d like to ask these brothers which slave here goes by the name of “Django.” Predictably irritated, the brothers tell him to take a hike or take some lead. While respectful, Dr. Schultz doesn’t like to be told what he can and cannot do. So he smokes one of the brothers, disables the other, and makes Django a free man.
You see, Dr. Schultz is a bounty hunter. He gets paid lots of dough for the carcasses of wanted men. And it appears he’s looking for Django’s former owners, three rusty no-good brothers (there are lots of siblings in Django Unchained) who’ve changed their names and are hiding out on some plantation. Dr. Schultz will pay Django a nice sum if he can identify these men so he can kill them.
Now these men also happen to be the men who raped and branded his wife, Broomhilda. So yeah, Django knows who they are all right. He’ll help the strange German. Plus, with the money he earns, he can go off and search for his wife, who’s since been sold off to another owner. Django doesn’t know who or where, but Schultz tells him he’ll help him find her.
Away the two go, infiltrating the plantation where the brothers are hiding out, and Django gets some sweet revenge on his former slavers. The two are such a great team that Schultz recommends they extend their contract and start making some real money upgrading to the big names, the kind of names that need two people to take them down. Besides, he persuades Django, if they’re going to save Broomhilda, Django has to be in tip top shape.
So the two go off, hunting wanted men, and in their downtime, Schultz teaches Django how to read and shoot. Eventually, Django becomes the most educated badass cowboy around. And it’s a sight to see. And a sight people aren’t used to seeing. When townsfolk observe an educated free black man riding into their town on a horse, they think it must be some kind of joke. And at first, Django feels like a joke. But after awhile, he starts seeing himself the way Schultz does, as a man who deserves to be respected.
Once they’re ready, the two come up with a plan to save Broomhilda. Unfortunately, Broomhilda is being held by one of the nastiest plantation owners in all the state, a detestable villanous soul named Calvin Candie, and Calvin Candie won’t just see anybody. If you want his attention, you have to pony up. Which means Schultz and Django must pretend to be looking for a fighter in one of Calvin’s favorite hobbies – Mandingo fighting. Basically, these are slaves forced to fight other slaves for white men’s entertainment.
In their scam, Schultz will play the rich interested party, and Django will play the “Mandingo expert” he’s hired in order to find the best fighter. Calvin could give two shits about the two until Scultz says the magical words, “Twelve thousand dollars.” Now Calvin’s ready to talk, and he decides to take them back to his plantation where the talking acoustics are a little nicer, the amusement park-esque estate known as “Candyland.”
While at Candyland, the two covertly scope out Broomhilda’s whereabouts, except that Calvin’s number 2 guy, groundskeeper Stephen (who’s, surprisingly enough, Calvin’s slave), suspects something is amiss with these men, and starts to do some digging. It doesn’t take him long to figure out their intentions, intentions that have nothing to do with buying a Mandingo. He lets his boss know, and for the first time since we’ve met Django and Shultz, the tables have turned. They’re not in control of the situation anymore. Once that happens, our dynamic duo is in major trouble. And it’s looking unlikely that they’ll find a way out of it.
Let me begin by saying that a big reason this script is so awesome is because of the GOALS and the STAKES. There’s always a goal pushing the story forward, which is extremely important in any screenplay but especially a 168 page screenplay. If your characters don’t have something important they’re going after, a solid GOAL, then your story’s going to wander around aimlessly until it stumbles onto a highway and gets plastered by a semi. A gas tanker semi. A gas tanker semi that explodes and starts a forest fire.
The first goal is Schultz’s goal of needing to find these brothers. Once that goal’s taken care of, the true goal that’s driving the story takes center stage – Django needs to find and save his wife. But, you’ll notice that even when we’re not focused directly on that, we have little goals we’re focusing on. It may be to kill one of the many wanted men they’re hunting. It may be to learn to read or fight or handle a gun, so that Django can be equipped for his final showdown. QT makes sure that we’re always driving towards something here, and he does it with goals. Goals that have stakes attached to them. How can the stakes be any higher than your wife’s safety and freedom?
But that’s not the only reason. Outside of Mike Judge, I don’t know any writer who can make his characters come alive on the page better than Tarantino. He just has this knack for developing unique memorable people. I can go through 5-6 scripts in a row and not read one memorable character. This script has like two dozen of them. It’s amazing. Sometimes it’s because he subverts expectations – Dr. Schultz is a German in an unfamiliar land who’s as dangerous as fuck yet always the most polite man in the room. Sometimes it’s through irony – A slave bounty hunter hunting the very white people who enslaved him. And sometimes it’s just a name – Calvin Candie. I mean how perfect a name is that? How are you going to forget that character?
I tell writers NEVER to overpopulate their screenplays with large character counts because we’ll forget half the characters and never know what’s going on. But when you can make each character this memorable? This unique? You can write however many damn characters you please.
And the dialogue here. I can’t even tell you why it’s so awesome because I don’t know. There are certain elements of dialogue you can’t teach and QT is one of the lucky bastards who possesses that unteachable quality. But I will tell you this, and it’s something I’ve become more and more aware of in subsequent Tarantino movie viewings. He depends on a particular tool to make his scenes awesome, and it’s the main reason why he can write such long scenes and get away with it.
Basically, Tarantino hints that something bad/crazy/unpredictable is going to happen at the end of the scene, and then he takes his time building up to that moment. Because we know that explosion is coming at the end, we’re willing to sit around for six, eight, ten pages until we get there. The anticipation eats at us, so we’re biting our nails, eager to see what’s going to happen. In these cases, the slowness of the scene actually works for the story because it deprives us of what we want most, that climax.
For example, there’s a scene in the second act where the young man who’s bought Broomhilda and since fallen in love with her, takes her out for a night on the town. He unfortunately walks into one of Calvin Candie’s establishments and before you know it, Candie himself has invited him over to his table to play poker with the big boys. Broomhilda knows something’s not right, but the poor soul is too flattered to listen to her. This scene goes on and on and we see that Candie is becoming more and more sinister, and we just know this isn’t going to end well. We know something terrible is going to happen. So of course, we’re on the edge of our seats dying to see in what terrible way it will end.
Tarantino also did this, most famously, in the opening “Milk Scene” of Inglorious Basterds. A German Commander shows up at a farm house looking for fugitive jews, and we just know this isn’t going to end well. That’s why the German commander can ask for something as unexciting as a glass of milk. That’s why he can talk about mundane things for minutes on end. Because we know this isn’t going to end well, yet we’re dying to see how it does end. Go through Django Unchained again and you’ll see that there are LOTS of these scenes, and one of the biggest tricks Tarantino has in his toolbox. He keeps going back to it, and it works every time.
But what I think really separates Tarantino from everyone else is that you never quite know where he’s going to go. You can predict most movies out there down to the minute. But with QT, you can’t. And it’s because he already knows where you think he’s going to go, so he purposely goes somewhere else. Take the opening scene, where we see a polite white man being kind and cordial to a slave. Not prepared for that. Or when we see that Calvin Candie takes his orders from a black man, his slave, Stephen. Or how when Broomhilda is first purchased, she’s actually purchased by a shy young white man who quickly falls in love with her and treats her kindly. I was always trying to predict where Tarantino would go next, and I was usually wrong. And even better, the choice he ended up going with always ended up in a better scene.
My complaints are minimal. There was only one area of the script that felt lazy. (spoiler) Late in the third act, Django’s life is spared because, apparently, he’ll experience a much worse death “in the mines.” This allows him to be transferred off the plantation, which of course allows him to trick his transporters and go back to save Broomhilda. Come on. No way the Candie family doesn’t torture and kill him right there. No way they let him go off to the mines. So I was disappointed by that because it felt like a cheap way to give Django his big climax. With that said, the big climax was phenomenal. Average Joe Writer would have had Django go in there Die Hard style. QT took a slower more practical approach, and created a much better finale because of it.
So you know what? I can’t believe I’m doing this since I haven’t done it in two years before a month ago, but I’m giving another GENIUS rating. This script is freaking amazing. It really is. I don’t know if the Academy knows what to do with a movie like this, but if we’re talking writing alone, this script should win the Oscar. And, heck, it should win for best film too.
What I learned: Always look for ironic moments in your screenplay. Audiences LOVE irony. Django, a slave, must play the role of a slave driver near the end of the film. He must treat other slaves like they’re dirt. He must talk to them like they’re dirt. It’s tough to watch but also fascinating, since he himself was, of course, a slave a short time ago.
Premise: A married couple goes on a cruise to heal their wounds after losing their son, but when the ship rescues a strange sick man, they soon find that their own lives are in danger.
About: Hey, how often do we get to read a script by TWINS? Touchstone bought this spec back in 2010. Alexi Hawley scripted the 2004 Exorcist prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning, and more recently was story editor on the Nathan Fillion show, Castle. Brother Noah was a writer on the TV show, Bones.
Writers: Alexi and Noah Hawley
Details: 110 pages
In all honesty, had I known this was a zombie script, I wouldn’t have read it. Dead In The Water was a random script I had in my screenplay pile which I knew nothing about, which is exactly why I wanted to read it. I was hoping for another Ends Of The Earth or Dead Of Winter. But didn’t get it. I got a zombie flick.
I’ll tell you what, though. Before I knew this was a zombie script – in other words throughout the first act – it was pretty damn good. And once it became a zombie flick, the darn thing kept going. It took some chances along the way – did things a little differently – and therefore, gasp, kept me fairly entertained. I’m still not sure what to make of it on the whole. There’s a character called Suparman who feels like he’s been beamed in from a different movie…on a different planet. But all in all, I think there’s more good here than bad.
The script starts out with a great opening scene. A group of doctors are out for a spin on their sailboat when they spot a couple of men on a trawler dumping bags into the ocean. The trawler speeds away and the doctors decide to investigate, only to find that the bags aren’t just bags. They’re body bags. And as they move up to get a closer look, one of the bags…STARTS MOVING.
They open the bag up to save the individual but it turns out it’s not him who needs saving. Blood splatters. There are screams. And we CUT to a cruise ship. This is where we meet Brian and Carrie Lake, a couple grieving over their dead son. Both are devastated but Carrie’s ready to move on. Brian, a cop, can’t let go however, and would rather sleep in their room all day than go out and “have fun.”
So Carrie heads out on her own, and while up on deck, spots something in the water that stops her cold. It’s a man! Drifting along on a piece of debris! She calls out to the ship’s crew and the next thing you know they’re lifting the man up on deck. Well waddaya know? It’s one of the doctors! And he’s not looking good. In fact, he starts vomiting blood all over the place! Mmmmmm…blood vomit.
Carrie relays the experience to Brian, who continues his bed brigade, so Carrie goes to take a nap on deck. When she wakes, however, something is off. There’s…nobody around. It’s like everyone from the cruise just disappeared. Oh, until she sees a man with a blood-stained mouth coming after her. And then another one. And then another one.
Carrie runs off, where she’s able to find a few more people, and the group quickly realizes that a virus has spread throughout the ship, bringing the dead back to life, dead who are hungry for human flesh. Let this be a lesson about picking up strangers.
Carrie now has a single-minded goal – finding her husband, and this is where the script does something different. It starts out with a segment called “Carrie,” which follows Carrie’s journey as she tries to find Brian. Then, when that’s over, we cut to the “Brian” segment, where we show Brian trying to find Carrie. If that were it, the script still may have been too predictable for me. But then, for some odd reason, we also have a final segment titled, you guessed it, “Suparman.” Suparman is a 22 year old Indonesian man who is some sort of circus acrobatics expert, able to wield duo-machetes which allows him to slice and dice zombies like they’re tomatoes. I honestly have NO IDEA what Suparman was doing in the script, and yet, I was glad he was. It gave the story this slight level of absurdity that differentiated it JUST ENOUGH from typical zombie faire to give it an edge.
The first thing I want to point out is what an advantage CONTAINING a horror scenario is. For those who read or saw Contagion – if you were like me, you saw a movie trying to cover so many countries and so many scenarios that it eventually lost itself. It’s hard to sell mass death when there are so many places to hide, so many islands and areas safe from contamination. On something like a cruise ship, however, there’s nowhere to run. You’re trapped. And that makes the situation a thousand times scarier.
I thought the cutting to different people was a smart move too. It broke up the conventional zombie structure of a group trying to move from point A to point B (while avoiding zombies). That’s where I think a lot of these scripts die. Because once the mystery is over, once the group knows they’re zombies and have to get to [some location] to survive, the scripts become very technical. They’re just moving on rails while avoiding zombies. All the creativity is gone. Now I’m not saying Dead In The Water completely eliminated this, but the structure break-up was just enough to keep us on our toes.
As far as the characters here….hmmmm… I guess they were okay. The whole “dead child” thing is a little stock. I’ve seen it before. In fact, it was the main storyline for another “dangerous person comes aboard a boat” flick, Dead Calm. I don’t know what it is about this backstory but I’ve never been a fan of it. First, there’s something just too sad about a dead child. It doesn’t translate well to screen. And second, it’s almost impossible to avoid melodrama with it. The couple has to be sad, they have to discuss how sad they are, and it always comes off as too much. I’d avoid this backstory unless you have a fresh take on it.
Anyway, the ultimate point is this – if I were a producer, I would buy this script. It’s a money-maker for sure. Zombies on a cruise ship? Never been done before (at least to my knowledge). You got the contained setup, nowhere to run. Zombies on a cruise has potential for a lot of fun scenarios, as proven here with the unforgettable shark climax. And then of course, you get to top it all off with Suparman – the machete-wielding alien from another planet. What’s not to like?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The isolated character name is a good way to imply the screenplay equivalent of a close-up during a key moment. — Remember guys, you don’t want to write “CLOSE-UP” in your script. It’s too technical. So the isolated character name is a great way to imply that the camera is on the character. Here’s an example from page 40…
They turn and run as the infected flood the stairs behind them.
reaches a doorway. Ducks through it and onto…
EXT. PROMENADE DECK – DAY