Say whaaaaat? Is this script actually better than the origin film of the franchise it’s joining?
Premise: A young girl with a proclivity for killing is recruited by a black ops government operation to be one of their primary assassins. But when she pisses off a group of fellow assassins, all hell breaks loose.
About: Shay Hatten burst onto the scene last year. The 22 year old, having just graduated from the underrated film school down at Loyola Marymount, made the Black List with his partially true depiction of Stephen King directing his first film, Maximum Overdrive. Hatten wasn’t done yet. He then wrote this script, which caught the attention of the hottest assassin franchise on the block, John Wick. The producers decided that Ballerina would be their first expansion of the John Wick universe. And so it came to be!
Writer: Shay Hatten
Details: 98 pages (undated)
The biggest spec trend by far at the moment is the Female John Wick trend. These juicy spec patties are selling with a side of fries at your local studio lot. Today it’s time for the Rolls Royce of this trend to make its debut on Scriptshadow – I’m talkin bout Ballerina. I mixed that car metaphor because this script so impressed the John Wick people, they’re actually integrating it into their John Wick universe! How can it get any more Female John Wick than that?
Not long ago, I reviewed Hatten’s breakthrough script, Maximum King, a project that was probably rushed into pre-production the second this weekend’s box office receipts came in. I didn’t love Maximum King. But Hatten can definitely write. He’s got a relentless energy to his prose and narrative, which means very little downtime for the reader. Which is not only the preferred mode for spec script writing, but an ideal mode for a spec like this. Are you as curious as I am with how he did? Then embrace the first position dammit, and straighten out your fucking tutu.
Rooney Brown (I wonder who Hatten envisions playing his lead) executes her first kill at age 6. Her father was in deep with some bad people, those people came to their house, and a crafty Rooney barreled into the killer’s legs once he reached the top of the stairs, sending him toppling down and cracking his neck.
Ever since then, the government’s been keeping an eye on Rooney, who uses the orphanage she’s sent to as her own personal training ground, splitting her time between beating up other kids and doing lots of one-armed push-ups.
Once she hits 18, Rooney is recruited by this black ops government dude named Berkowitz to be an assassin. Rooney doesn’t have a whole lot of direction in her life and she is good at beating the shit out of dudes much bigger than her, so why not?
She takes to killing easily, comfortable in the fact that she’s getting rid of bad dudes – dictators and the like. But then a couple of things change. Rooney falls in love and marries Tom. And the dudes she’s asked to kill aren’t always that evil anymore. It seems like she’s starting to kill only “kind of bad” dudes.
Rooney plans to get out. But not before this final job. While she’s poised to snipe some dude in a passing train, somebody else – another assassin! – snipes her! Injured, Rooney snipes back, killing the girl, and later Berkowitz admits that there’s a shady organization that sometimes kills his killers. Well that would’ve been nice to know ahead of time, Rooney points out.
What Rooney doesn’t know is that she’s just enacted the Defcon 5 protocol of an entire town full of killers. That’s right. There’s a place in the Swiss Alps called Sunnyvale that is made up entirely of killers, and they’ve been killing for over 500 years! Rooney just killed the leader’s daughter. Which means they want to get even. Rooney realizes that the only way she’s going to stop that is if she goes there first — and kills every single person in town.
Initial impressions? If Hatten keeps improving at this rate, he’s going to be one of the top 10 script doctors in Hollywood by the end of next year.
You know who he reminds me of? He’s kind of like Brian Duffield meets Max Landis. He’s got the relentless steamroll-the-page energy of Landis, peppered with some of that self-aware Duffield prose. Also, with this script, he’s starting to embrace character development. Watch out, Hollywood.
My issue with these scripts is always the same. The repetitive nature of the genre leads to boringness. There are only so many ways you can describe your assassin dodging a punch, shooting an enemy in the face, or threatening a baddie’s family unless they, “tell me what I need to know!”
As a result, these scripts tend to peter out by page 40. How do you avoid that? Well, Hatten’s crafted a solid blueprint.
You gotta make us care about the main character somehow. This is what’s going to pay all your dividends later. If you don’t pay attention to this part, your hero is going to feel generic. And audiences aren’t emotionally invested in whether generic soulless people get hurt or not.
You can achieve this “care” in one of two ways. The advanced way or the beginner way. Both ways work. One just takes more time.
The advanced way is to concoct a single scene that makes us fall in love with a character. The classic example of this is the opening scene of Indiana Jones. Indiana displays several things that make audiences fall in love with characters – intelligence, perseverance, and cleverness. The reason this is “advanced” is because it’s hard to make people fall in love with a character in 5-8 minutes. There aren’t many writers who can pull it off.
The beginner way is time. Dedicate a large segment of your first act getting to know your main character through their everyday life. Just the act of spending a lot of time with someone draws us closer to them and makes us care about them (no different from how we become close to people in real life).
Ballerina takes this route. We see Rooney when she’s a kid, as she grows up in an orphanage, as she’s recruited, when she falls in love, through a couple of assassinations – then, and only then, does the shit hit the fan. This way, when she’s going through scene number six of repetitive actions like, “…she kicks the cheese-maker in the face and jams a butter knife through his throat,” we still care, because we care about her.
The other way to keep these scripts interesting is to be unexpected. You have to make unexpected things happen in the micro and the macro. And when I say “unexpected,” I mean the type of shit that doesn’t USUALLY happen in these movies.
To give you an example of the micro, when Rooney is first attacked by that Sunnyvale assassin, she’s shot in her face. She sees the shot just before it comes so she’s able to pull her head back a little bit. But the bullet still goes through one cheek and out the other. This is unexpected in that, when I usually read these scripts, our hero will dodge the bullet entirely.
On the macro end, we have this Swiss Alps 500 year old Assassins Town. Of course I’ve seen a lot of mythology over the years when it comes to assassins. But I’ve never quite run into that. And this idea of our heroine going to a small town in the Swiss Alps to kill every single person in the town. I definitely haven’t seen that.
Writers are inherently lazy. They want to write the easy scene. I was actually going to review a different script today. It was an older script from a writer who was really big 7 years ago. He sold several specs. And I was curious why he’d disappeared off the face of the screenwriting planet.
So I read his “final” spec of that time. This script DID NOT sell. And that was the last time anyone heard from him. I swear to you, half of the first act was lifted directly from another famous movie. It wasn’t even sort of similar. It was the same series of events, beat for beat. I was appalled at the laziness. But I knew right then: THIS is why this writer isn’t working anymore. When you stop trying, the reader stops caring.
Anyway, I went on a little detour there. But the point I was making was, don’t get lazy. Always keep pushing yourself to come up with new scenes, new characters, new beats, new kills, new plot points. You’ll always be tempted to rip off your favorite scene from Aliens cause it’s right there! It’s so easy! Don’t do it. Find the new twist, the new unexpected beat. Keep doing that throughout the script and you’ll have something that feels like Ballerina. Familiar but fresh.
I was skeptical of this script going in. I thought it was going to be some half-assed John Wick wannabe. But it’s actually its own thing. And more importantly, it’s fun. You read this and you want to see the movie. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that all that matters with a spec?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: When we try to make our hero “likable,” we often try and craft a single moment that’s going to make everyone fall in love with them. A typical example of this is your hero engaging in a mutually enjoyable conversation with a homeless person that lives outside their house. “Hey Mr. Atwood! Good to see you again!” “Leroy! How’s my man doing?” Look at how nice and cool our hero is that he engages with the homeless! I like him now! Wince. A more overlooked quality of likability, however, is perseverance. Audiences LOVE characters who never give up. It doesn’t matter how bad the situation is, that character is going to get out of it, dammit. So don’t always look for the quick fix. Sometimes the answer to solving your screenwriting problem takes place over the long-haul.