Watch “The Ritual” today if you have Netflix. It’s the first good movie Netflix has ever made. More importantly, tomorrow’s article will be about the movie. We’re going to talk about how a single scene can make a screenplay.
Premise: In an unraveling that rivals Taxi Driver, a young woman who moderates X-rated content on a social media platform, becomes unhinged and starts taking her moderation into the real world.
About: Today’s script finished number 15 on last year’s Black List. While this is the writer’s first big break in the screenwriting world, he’s worked in the art department on numerous films, including Stephen Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.”
Writer: Zach Baylin
Details: 114 pages
Today’s script is a mixed bag but it’s the good kind of mixed bag. The kind that has raisins and M&Ms in it. If I was teaching a screenwriting class and all of you were sitting in front of me, I’d tell you to read this script because it’s the kind of script that can get you noticed, get passed around, and even sell.
How does it achieve all these things? For starters it’s a simple premise. Simple premise = easy read. Girl starts taking crime into her own hands. Have we seen that before? Yes. But never quite like this is. And that’s an important detail. Hollywood doesn’t mind if you give them “the same” as long as it’s “not quite the same.”
It’s also a CURRENT premise. Writing about something current is always a gamble. Current passes by quickly. Ask anyone who wrote that AOL instant messenger spec. However, “current” allows you to write something that people haven’t seen before. When you’re competing against 100 years of movies, fresh subject matter is invaluable. So sometimes it’s worth the risk.
But what I really like about this script is how the writer approached it. He approached it in a way that allowed him to write big and strong – to charge through the description and dialogue confidently. Not every type of script allows you to write this way. It’s hard to write The Shawshank Redemption with blazing confidence. That script requires a more deliberate pace.
By choosing to move Brie through the narrative at breakneck speed, it allows for a strong consistent writing style, and that has an effect on the reader. It certainly had an effect on me. I found myself almost intimidated by some of the passages and dialogue. Here’s Brie, conveying why her job is so difficult…
“The real problem is – not the P.C. Free speech, open airwaves of it – it’s that there is so goddamn much of it. So much hate. And violence. And pain. And chances are, if you haven’t seen it, it’s because I saw it for you.”
My slurping doesn’t stop there. I love the idea of doing a female Taxi Driver. In this world of randomly placing women in male roles because it gets an immediate green light, changing Travis Bickle into a woman is actually quite clever. Because we’re not used to seeing unhinged female psychopaths, there’s a jarring quality to the unraveling that almost seems rote when you see it happen to a guy these days. This gives the script a hell of a fresh feel.
“Come As You Are” introduces us to Brie Salter, a 28 year old All-American girl who not only wants to change the world, but has actually lived the world. After losing her parents, she joined the army and spent some time in Afghanistan. Now, years later, she lives in the big city and has an amazing boyfriend, who’s just gotten her an interview at one of the biggest social media companies (which remains unnamed) in the world.
George, her interviewer, hires her to work in Moderation, the kind of branch Brie assumes is innocent and easy. But as soon as she’s ushered into the basement (“Brie follows Joy down a staircase like Clarice trailing Chilton into Lecter’s lair”) she learns that it’s anything but.
Brie takes us through the process of moderation, which is mostly straightforward. You see a kid violently bullying another kid, you delete it. But sometimes it gets tricky. A mother videotapes her 3 year old daughter, who happens to be naked, swimming, and now you have to make judgement calls on if people are going to be offended.
Seeing smut and shit and degradation and violence can be managed if it’s taken in small doses. But what happens when that’s all you watch? All day? Every day? It starts to have an effect on you. And soon, Brie wants to fight back. When a girl wants to commit suicide after being bullied but the company doesn’t do anything about it, Brie reaches out to the girl and saves her life.
She then asks, “What else can I do?” She begins using the powerful digital tools at her disposal to hunt down the filth who are posting all this garbage then exposing them to their communities and their schools and their local police departments. Brie becomes empowered every time she takes down a new pedophile.
But as you’d expect, this reckless behavior begins to skew her perception of reality – absolute power corrupts absolutely – and we get the sense it’s only a matter of time before Brie goes too far. When she becomes obsessed with a provocative Ann Coulter like figure, we know that that shit ain’t gonna end with a 1-800-Flowers bouquet and an apology for the misunderstanding.
Shall we continue the love? Actually, while I did love a lot of this script, I had my problems with it as well, the biggest of which is that it starts off so smart, but ends up so silly. Brie starts getting so crazy, it becomes hard to take her seriously. By the end of this movie, she’s a caricature. I mean, she’s threatening the lives of grade-schoolers.
I’m guessing Baylin had trouble finding the balance – figuring out how far he could go. In his defense, our mopey lead character in Taxi Driver ends up with an outrageous haircut. But Travis Bickle always remained the same character. And the level of Brie’s craziness borders on parody.
I was so impressed by that early confidence and that great first act setup, I was hoping for the same sophistication all the way through. Once things single-mindedly became, “Take down all evil white men,” anything that was once below the surface had been drilled and fracked, then scattered on the New York City streets.
With that said, I do believe Baylin has a message with this script and it’s a powerful one. The images and the videos and the constant negativity we view on our computer screens every day is having an effect on us, and that effect is happening so gradually that we don’t realize how serious it is. We will one day. But maybe, by then, it will be too late.
Time to de-bookmark Pornhub?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Something I talk a lot about is “specificity.” Your writing can’t be general. It needs to be specific. The problem with screenwriting is you also have to be sparse. And some writers mistake that for meaning they shouldn’t add detail at all. You should definitely add detail (or “specificity”); you just want to pick your spots. When you believe a detail or a moment is important, describe it for us in specific terms. When Brie shows up for her first day at work, we get this…
INT. SAFETY NET HALLWAY – MORNING
The walls lined with INSPIRATIONAL POSTERS designed like Nike Ads, sporting Cultish platitudes: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” “Proceed and be Bold.” Brie eyes them with suspicion as they pass.
You could’ve easily written something general here like, “The walls are lined with the usual corporate bullshit.” But because this location is such an important part of the story, Baylin wanted to give you a specific vision of it.