Genre: Dark Comedy/Thriller
Premise: (from Black List) After catching her husband in bed with a hooker, which causes him to die of a heart attack, Sue Bottom buries the body and takes advantage of the local celebrity status that comes from having a missing husband.
About: Today’s script finished on the 2017 Black List just under yesterday’s script, When Lightning Strikes, with 19 votes. This one came out of nowhere. It was absent from The Hit List, which charts the best spec scripts of the year, making its Top 10 ranking on the Black List a mystery in itself. Whatever the case, it’s safe to say this is Amanda Idoko’s breakthrough screenplay.
Writer: Amanda Idoko
Details: 118 pages
I like when writers do this.
Take a popular premise from recent years (Gone Girl) and spin it in a slightly different way. It’s like a cheat code to compete with established IP. The letters “IP” basically stand for “Green Light” in Hollywood and that’s because audiences are familiar with the material, guaranteeing that at least someone shows up to the theater. So when you spin a new idea out of a recent film, you’re hacking the IP DNA, giving yourself an attachment to a successful experience that isn’t yours. Genius!
But how bout the script itself? Was it as good as Gone Girl? Actually, Idoko takes her cues from two other famous directors, the Coens, turning a traditionally male-led genre into a female one. Let’s see how it fares.
Sue Bottom is hopelessly hanging onto the belief that her marriage is okay. The 40-something office worker who’s so invisible that people literally run into her during the day, walks around listening to affirmation-based recordings, reminding herself that she has high self-worth and lots to offer the world.
When Sue shows up to her husband Bill’s work in hopes of a birthday date, she’s shocked to see him buy some flowers and drive to a local motel. Once she’s able to locate his room, she walks in to see Bill banging an extremely large woman named Leah. As soon as the putz sees his wife, he has a heart attack and dies.
An angry Sue tells Leah to scram and then concocts a wild plan. She’ll bury her husband, trash their home, tell the world he was abducted, and have the entire nation feeling sorry for her. Darn it if Sue won’t finally be visible.
What Sue doesn’t know is that her husband was laundering money for a local Indian crime boss, whose hit man & woman found him through Bill’s waste of a brother, Petey. When Petey learns that his brother is missing, he assumes that the Indian duo have kidnapped him for not paying them back. So Petey comes to Sue, assuring her that he knows where Bill is and will get him back.
Meanwhile, Sue finds out the hard way that nobody cares about a middle aged man gone missing. So she doubles-down on her idea, telling the local news that Bill had information on the whereabouts of a famous missing girl.
This gets the nation’s attention, and soon Sue is being doted on by everyone who used to ignore her. However, as the police start connecting the dots of Bill’s “abduction,” they find that literally none of what Sue is saying makes sense. Which means it’s only a matter of minutes before Sue’s fifteen are up.
Breaking News in Yuba County was like a satisfying two eggs, two pieces of toast, breakfast. You nailed the toasting process. It was toasted just enough that it wasn’t limpy but not so much that it could double as a fossilized rock. You didn’t overcook the eggs for once. A little extra butter gave it that naughty kick. It’s the kind of breakfast that starts a day off right. However, it’s not a meal you’re going to list as one of your favorites.
That’s what’s frustrating about Yuba County. It’s the type of wacky idea that needs to be great to work. Whenever you’re following a group of crazy characters, linking all of their plotlines together and setting things up and paying them off every few pages – when all of that comes together, it’s the closest thing in screenwriting to a symphony. And while Yuba County’s arrangement was definitely pleasing to listen to, something was missing.
There was this screenwriting book that came out 20 years ago. I forget the exact title, but I think it was called, “Liked it Didn’t Love It.” This is a critical phrase in the Hollywood ecosystem because it encompasses the large majority of scripts being passed around.
There’s so much competency in the screenwriting trade that you read a lot of stuff that you “like.” But there are very few times that you “love” something. And those are the scripts that matter. Because it’s the “love” script that gets you to the mountaintop, that gets you bought, that gets you produced, that gets people to pay $15 to see your movie. So understanding the difference between a “like” and “love” script is critical to your own success as a screenwriter.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear why we “like” something but don’t “love” it. It’s just a feeling we get. How does one quantify that and turn it into a series of actionable steps to make the script better? The first thing you need to do is to strip away all the screenwriting gobbledygook and ask yourself purely as an audience member: “Why didn’t I love this?” Once you identify that, you can start to inspect WHY that’s the case.
When I look back at Yuba County, I keep going back to the main character, Sue. There was something about her that I didn’t like. As all Scriptshadow readers know, if the reader doesn’t love the main character, they’re going to have a hard time loving the story. Now that I’ve identified the problem, I can get into the screenwriting gobbledygook. WHY didn’t I like Sue Bottom?
Sue was overcooked. She wasn’t just ignored. She was CHRONICALLY IGNORED. She came home and her husband, sitting right there, didn’t notice her. She sits at a table with two other people at work. They don’t know she’s there. She’s in line at the store. Someone rams into her because they don’t see her. Everyone forgets her birthday. Her sister uses her. Everywhere we turn, Sue is being aggressively ignored.
I understand that this is to set up Sue’s need for attention. But the problem with going overboard on ANYTHING is that you start to bring attention to it. And once that happens, the reader becomes aware that the writer is trying to manipulate them. Which means the suspension of disbelief is broken.
Remember guys and gals, one of the most important components of writing is being INVISIBLE. You don’t want to announce “HERE I AM! THE WRITER, PULLING THE STRINGS! MANIPULATING YO ASS.” So when it comes to setting up a character like Sue, you don’t have to go 5th gear in every scene driving the point home. Drive it home hard in her introductory scene, then do so subtly in a few subsequent scenes. Because, again, the last thing you want is your reader not believing that your main character is a real person. That’s the character we have to believe in the most.
I’m being hyper-critical to make my point. But I don’t want you to think this script was bad. I actually kept marveling at how much work must’ve gone into connecting all these storylines. And the decision to place a female character in the middle of a Coen Brothers’ish script is something I don’t think they’ve done before, unless you count Francis McDormand as the main character in Fargo. And, again, it was a fun ride. I just left the ride feeling like there could’ve some bigger drops and extra loops. I wanted my Coen Brothers cake and to eat it too.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The Rule of Threes is a good starting point if you’re trying to figure out how hard to drive something home. So, if you’re trying to drive home that Sue is always ignored, you’d give us three moments of her getting ignored. Of course, there should be variation in the execution of these moments. They shouldn’t all be “screaming from the rooftops” moments of her being ignored. One of those moments could be big, one medium, and one subtle. — Also, The Rule of Threes is a STARTING POINT. Like anything in writing, its use will vary depending on the script.