Genre: True Story
Premise: (from Black List) Based on real events, the story of the writing of Fatal Vision, the 1983 bestselling true crime classic that chronicles the summer journalist Joe McGinness spent with “Green Beret Killer” Jeffrey McDonald while he was on trial for the brutal murder of his wife and children.
About: This script finished with 14 votes on the 2015 Black List, placing it on the top half of the list. The writer, Matthew Scott Weiner, got his career started in animation. This is his breakout script as a screenwriter.
Writer: Matthew Scott Weiner
Details: 117 pages
I suppose a story about the writing of a book that most people have never heard of isn’t the fastest way to fame and glory. But if the story behind that experience is good enough, the popularity of the book doesn’t matter. In fact, the movie can propel the little-known book to become popular. A little art imitates life imitates commerce imitates art sorta thing.
What’s funny about this script is that for the first 30 pages, I thought it was about the Green RIVER killer. Not the Green BERET killer. So I’m sitting there going, “Wow, so this guy murdered 30 women over a decade, then murdered his own family, and he managed to get away with it???” Once I realized they were separate cases, things got a lot clearer.
As we all know, writing about writers is akin to blending a blender. Sure, it can be done. But aren’t there better things to blend? The biggest problem is that nobody likes to watch someone writing. It’s the most cinematically uninteresting thing in existence.
However, props to Weiner. He found a way around this. By having the lead be a journalist writing a book, he essentially turns this from a movie about a writer to a movie about an investigator. Since investigators are active and investigate interesting things, you now have yourself an active narrative.
And a mystery about whether a man killed his family or not definitely has the potential to be good. The question is, did Weiner pull it off?
The year is 1978. Joe McGinnis is an award-winning writer who penned one of the most influential books ever, The Selling of the President (about Richard Nixon). One problem. That was ten years ago. McGinnis is in danger of becoming a has-been if he doesn’t get another book out soon.
Joe is currently obsessed with a guy named Jeff MacDonald. Jeff was a Green Beret who, in 1970, was knocked out in his home by a group of Manson-like hippies, who then killed Jeff’s wife and two daughters. Jeff’s story has a lot of holes though, and the military, who thinks Jeff did it, decides to try him. Jeff wins the case and moves on with his life.
However, because of some legal glitch, a military trial of this nature is not considered official under civilian law. So now, eight years later, Jeff must go back to civilian court for the same case. Joe reaches out to Jeff and asks if he can write a book about the case, and Jeff, being a fan of Joe’s previous book, says yes.
What follows is Joe’s attempt to get close enough to Jeff to get those nitty-gritty details that nobody else knows yet. The thing is, Jeff is such a narcissist, and seems so unmoved by the death of his family, that Joe becomes convinced that Jeff had to have done it.
However, that’s not really what the screenplay is about. It’s more about Joe’s belief that Jeff isn’t getting a fair trial. Therefore, he makes the central theme of his book that injustice. (spoiler) But when Jeff receives a guilty verdict, Joe’s publisher demands that Joe focus less on the injustice and more on the fact that this guy is a cold-blooded killer. Joe must weigh the importance of his friendship with Jeff before deciding which road to go down.
Let me start off by saying that, after this script, I’m convinced that the better avenue for this type of storytelling is the docu format. Both the fictional and docu formats have their strengths and weaknesses. And the strength of the docu is that it can get into the nitty gritty details of the murder. The fictional format doesn’t do that well. Instead, the fictional format is good at exploring and dramatizing the relationships between the characters.
Let me give you an example. Castle Drive had this ENDLESSSSSSSS sequence of lawyers trying to figure out if an ice pick (the weapon the killers used) could have caused 48 holes in a single sweater. That’s the sort of thing that, if I was watching a Making a Murderer type show and they could show me all the experts and reenact the stabbing for me, I could get into that.
But here it was like, “OKAY ALREADY!!! WE GET IT! The pick created a lot of holes and people don’t agree on whether it was capable of doing that. Do we really need to spend a fifth of the screenplay on this??”
I was much more interested in the relationship between Joe and Jeff. That’s where you get into the interesting questions, like the moral responsibility of a journalist. How close you should get to the suspect. Whether that’s going to influence your judgement. Is Joe going to get close enough to Jeff that Jeff will tell him what really happened? Should Joe lie to gain Jeff’s trust in order to get the juicier details?
Unfortunately, that relationship never clicked. The big reason for that was Jeff. He was so devoid of depth that it was impossible to get a feel for him. He was always happy. He was always sure he was right. He was a narcissist through and through. And while that may have been who he was in real life, it prevented me from understanding the guy on any level – positive or negative. He was just this dude who was probably guilty being given an unfair trial.
That was my other problem with the script, is that Joe was eventually convinced Jeff was guilty, yet he was horrified by the fact that Jeff was getting an unfair trial. If he knew that Jeff did it, who the hell cares how he’s convicted? Why are you horrified by the fact that the system is rigged against a guy who brutally murdered his wife and children?
In screenwriting, you’re looking for DRAMA. You’re looking for things that conflict, not comply. It would’ve been a lot more interesting if Jeff was innocent but got an unfair trial. Or if he was guilty but his lawyer had rigged the trial to get him off. Now you have conflict. Now your main character has a dilemma. A guy who’s guilty being given an unfair trial isn’t dramatically interesting.
It frustrates me that writers don’t think about drama. Drama is conflict. It’s two things colliding head on. If your story isn’t doing that repeatedly, you’re not maximizing the entertainment value.
Also, I want to put this out there because I’ve seen in A LOT of it lately. It’s okay to make your character an alcoholic, like Joe. But if you do this, you either have to personally know what it’s like to be an addict. Or you have to research it – talk to someone who’s an alcoholic and try to understand what that’s like. Because I have a few alcoholic friends, and being an alcoholic is torture. It’s not having any control over your actions. It’s walking to the store at 1am like a determined zombie who will not deviate until he finds his brains.
When writers just tack on the alcoholism vice to deepen their characters, it’s the worst. Because you can smell the artificiality from a mile away. You know the writer isn’t interested in exploring what that’s really like. They just want to check that box, the one that says “Your characters now contain depth.”
That’d be the advice I’d give to any writer who wants to make a character an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex addict, whatever. You have to have an INTEREST in exploring what that’s really like. Because no number of obligatory shots of your hero pouring a glass of whiskey is going to convince us. We have to see that struggle within them. If you’re not willing to do that, I PROMISE YOU your character will read false on the page and every reader will pick up on it.
What’s most frustrating about this script is that there are pieces of it that work. And the setup is inherently interesting. A writer investigates a guy acquitted of murder and begins to think he did it. There’s plenty you can do with that. But the script is too focused on the details (like sweaters), and not enough on the central relationship. We needed to see this friendship build, see Joe realize Jeff was guilty, Joe get pushed to rip into Jeff by his publisher, and finally Joe’s decision to pull away from the man he’d become close friends with.
We unfortunately didn’t get that. And I believe that’s the key to this movie working.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Just saying something doesn’t make it true (another way to look at “show don’t tell”). Joe keeps saying that the trial is unfair. But we never see it with our own eyes. We HEAR how a few things that could’ve helped Jeff were ruled inadmissible. But there are hundreds of things that are ruled inadmissible in every murder case. It’s par for the course. If you want to convince us of something, you have to show us. You need to write a scene where Jeff is clearly wronged in court. That’s the only way to get a point through to the reader.