Genre: Biopic/True Story
Premise: The story of a, then, upstart Donald Trump’s first real estate project, the renovation of the Commodore Hotel.
About: This script made the low end of last year’s Black List. It’s Tom Cartier’s breakthrough script. He doesn’t have any listed work before it.
Writer: Tom Cartier
Details: 111 pages
It’s genius in a way.
Write a script about the most talked about man in the world. At the very least, people are going to read your screenplay. They may not like it. But they’ll read it.
And I like the approach Cartier took here. You could’ve chosen the obvious route and made this another butt-of-the-joke Trump piece. But then you’d be doing exactly what everyone else was doing. One of the easiest ways to make your story stand out is to go against expectation. And that’s what Cartier did. “Builder” is the first thing I’ve read in ages that takes Trump seriously.
However, all that does is assures me this is going to be different. It doesn’t assure me that it’s going to be good. So let’s find out if Builder was any good.
We join Donald Trump in 1977 when he was 25 years old. Donald’s father, Fred Sr., used to be a real estate developer but got blacklisted for some shady accounting practices. This means that Donald, who is already obsessed with real estate, is fighting an uphill from the second he hits the pavement.
Donald has two brothers, one younger (Robert) and one older (Freddy). It’s Freddy we focus on, though. Eight years Donald’s senior, Freddy is a classic underachiever who can’t live up to his father’s wildly lofty expectations. As such, he’s taken his struggles to the bottle.
Donald wants to make a splash in real estate as quickly as possible so he targets a crumbling hotel in Midtown called the Commodore as his first renovation project. Donald hires political kingmaker Janice Brightly to advise him, and she basically tells him that there’s no way they’re going to entrust a hundred million dollar renovation to a 25 year old. Yeah, Donald says, but I’m Donald Trump.
The story then follows Donald as he works all the major people in the way of his project. There’s his evil nemesis and current real estate king, Richard Ravitch. There’s Michael DePhillips, who he’ll use to plant positive stories in the press. And there’s Jay Pritzker, whose Hyatt Hotel affiliation Trump needs to add legitimacy to the project.
And then there’s Trump’s ace in the hole – his revolutionary new financing idea. He’s going to buy the building, sell it back to the city, and rent it from them on a hundred year lease, allowing him to avoid paying any taxes. He’s effectively getting the building for free. But when Trump’s rival, Ravitch, finds this out, he vows to do everything in his power to stop Trump from getting the Commodore. There’s only one problem. Ravitch has never gone up against someone as ruthless as Donald Trump.
I really wanted to like this. I was hoping it was going to give me some new insight into Trump. To me, that’s the only reason to write about someone, is to reveal things about them that we don’t already know. I particularly saw the brother relationship as an opportunity to see the softer side of Trump. Unfortunately, that relationship is shoddily handled, and the prevailing theme at the end of the script is one I didn’t need to spend 2 hours of my life to find out, since I already knew it – Trump is ruthless.
The plotting here is very “And then this happened.” This is the “inevitability” plot approach that I warn against because it’s too predictable. When you’re predictable, your reader gets ahead of you. And if they get too far ahead of you, they get impatient. They’re now waiting for YOU to catch up when you’re the one who should be waiting for THEM to catch up.
For example, we’re told early on the 5 people Trump will have to win over to get the Commodore. We then go through the painstaking process of Trump meeting each of those people over the next 20 pages. So I’m sitting there checking my watch going, “Okay, which person is he on? How many more of these guys do we have to get through until we’re on to the next section?” This kind of writing almost always leads to boredom.
So how do you prevent it? The solution can be found back in my “In and Out” article. We needed a big “IN” plot moment. Something to be thrown at our protagonist that, in turn, threw the story for a loop, setting our main character on a different path. But we never got it.
And it’s unfortunate we couldn’t get more into this Trump brother relationship because it had a lot of potential. The mistake that was made was a common screenwriting error. The relationship was all TELL and no SHOW. It was the brother telling anyone who would listen, “I’m trying hard but it’s tough to be successful in real estate,” and Trump telling associates, “My brother has so much potential. But my dad is so hard on him!”
That’s not how you explore a relationship. You explore a relationship through action. For example, you establish that Freddy has a drinking problem. Then you establish that Trump is stretched thin with all his Commodore meetings and needs help. So he decides to entrust his brother to go one of these meetings (an important one, of course). And the prevailing sentiment is, “I’m taking a chance on you. Don’t fuck this up.” And, of course, Freddy gets drunk before the meeting and he blows the meeting, setting Trump back to square one.
Now, you have an argument between the brothers about how Freddy screwed up the meeting, with the subtext being, “Your whole life is a fuckup. You’re a failure. And this proves it.” You’re using plot points to create actionable scenes, as opposed to characters saying on-the-nose lines like, “There’s so much pressure to live up to my dad.”
The final nail in the coffin was that the script didn’t do a good job explaining, in laymen’s terms, how Trump’s innovative financing worked. To my knowledge, this is what made Trump’s career, is his innovation in the way he put deals together. So it’s really important that we understand what Trump’s doing. But the script’s explanation of this process is buried under strange terms (what’s an arrearment?) and a complicated rule-pyramid that’s almost unintelligible.
And before you say, “Well, it’s not easy to explain complicated real estate financing to an average person,” I’d argue that The Big Short figured out a way to do it. Look, guys. You don’t get excuses as screenwriters. You don’t get to say, “Well, I didn’t do that because it was too hard.” Your job is to make it work. That’s why people will pay you millions of dollars to write. Because you’re the guy who figures it out. Nobody wants to hear excuses.
But the biggest thing this script needed was the emotional core – that relationship between Trump and Freddy. Because people don’t see Donald Trump as a human being. And if you could’ve explored that relationship, you would’ve been able to move past that issue.
I’m a little terrified about what the comments are going to look like so let’s try to keep the conversation on topic and if you do bring up politics in relation to the script, do so respectfully. If I see attacking, bullying, or name-calling, it’s likely those comments will be deleted, no matter how many “But they started it” e-mails I get.
And with that, discuss!
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There are things in every script that you really want to get across. Many times they’re the reason you wanted to write the script in the first place. The problem with these things is that they will become primary candidates to be used as on-the-nose dialogue. And it’s not even your fault. You can’t help it. You HAVE to let the reader know that THIS IS WHY YOU FUCKING WROTE THIS SCRIPT! So it feels so damn good to write those lines. But guess what? Those lines are always the worst lines in your script. Because they’re so damn on-the-nose! You have to resist writing them and, instead, look for actionable ways (show don’t tell) to include them instead. So here, one of the key things Cartier is exploring is the fact that Freddy is 8 whole years older than Donald and a fraction of the businessman Donald is. We get a line in the script where Freddy actually says, “I’m 8 years older than you.” You don’t want to write this. You want to find ways to imply it instead. Is it easy? No. But writing isn’t easy. So I’ll kick it down to you guys. How would you SHOW and not TELL that Freddy is 8 years older than Donald and a fraction of the businessman?