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Premise: After a drunken one-night stand, a man finds himself being stalked by the crazy computer-savvy woman he slept with.
About: CTRL made last year’s Hit List, a list of the best SPEC screenplays of the year. It’s different from The Black List, which is a list celebrating the best screenplays (spec, assignment, whatever) of the year. The writers are repped by UTA.
Writers: Thomas Sonntag & John Sonntag
Details: 109 pages
What is the definition of a breakout spec?
We don’t have a lot of ways to answer that question. There are the scripts that sell. There are the scripts that land on The Black List. And then there are the scripts that are optioned. The thing is, every one of those avenues is imperfect.
Subpar screenplays sell for a variety of reasons. Maybe a production company is in immediate need of a type of script and they grab the first thing they find. Maybe an actor attaches himself to a script to help his friend sell it. Maybe a script even sells because someone owes someone a favor.
The Black List isn’t full proof either. The list celebrates the “most liked” scripts of the year, but how many people in Hollywood have read all 500 screenplays that officially go out? Agents are aware that if they send out a script with a good premise but bad execution, ¾ of the industry will be aware of it, increasing its chances of making the Black List based on saturation alone.
On the flip side, there are production companies deliberately trying to keep their scripts secret. These scripts may only leak out to a few people. So if you have 200 people reading a bad script and 5 people reading a good one, the bad script is going to get more Black List votes on awareness alone.
Then with options, you’re usually taking a script that isn’t there yet and betting that with a little development, you can turn it into a winner.
So every method we have for judging a screenplay’s quality is flawed in some way.
However, as tempting as it is to call the system a blind lottery, I don’t think that’s the case. The system succeeds far more than it fails. If you think more terrible scripts are selling than good scripts, you’re crazy. And I should know. I read them all.
What I like about today’s script is that you get a taste of something in that middle ground. It made the list of best specs of the year (The Hit List) but didn’t have the juice to make the much more prestigious Black List. It’s a good window into how Hollywood ranks product. So for me, it was an opportunity to see what got CTRL to the level it did, but figure out why it didn’t get further. Let’s take a look.
Nathan Everett is a P.R. manager who appears to have it all. He’s got a great job, good friends, and a smoking hot girlfriend. Of course, as we all know, the only place to go when you’re at the top is down, and Nathan’s about to fall all the way down.
After his girlfriend unexpectedly turns down his marriage proposal, Nathan goes on a business trip where he meets the real-life equivalent of the girl with the dragon tattoo, Olivia Doumanian. The next thing Nathan knows, he and Olivia are playing ‘where’s the sheets’ at her hotel room. The next morning, Nathan’s ready to get back to his life. Olivia, on the other hand, is ready to get back to Nathan.
And thus begins the most horrifying stalking debacle in the history of stalks. Olivia threatens to hack into the plane Nathan’s on and blow it up. She puts a pre-recorded unchangeable ringtone of herself screaming, “Fuck me!” on his phone. She hacks into his work e-mail and starts pulling “reply alls” to group e-mails, animatedly calling their boss a douchebag.
Realizing he can’t fight this battle alone, he contacts a government friend who tells him that Olivia used to work for the government and is very dangerous. Surprisingly, Government Guy’s less interested in helping Nathan and more focused on capturing Olivia, since she ran off from work a year ago. Since that’s the only option to get Olivia off his tail, Nathan agrees to it. But he quickly realizes that trying to cage a nutcase is easier said than done.
I love stalker scripts. I just love’em. I mean I gave an “impressive” to “The Roommate.” So this premise is right up my alley. And the first thing I noticed about CTRL was how slick it was. From the minimalist analogy-laden writing (“hair-slicked back from the leftover oil that makes him such a good cog in the system”) to the names of the characters (Harrison Coyle, Madelyn Hames, Kevin Delsin). As long as you pack SOME meat into your minimalist writing, it’s a huge advantage in a spec, since readers like to read specs quickly.
I also liked how the script started. One thing I’ve been noticing lately is that writers are so focused on setting their story up, that they follow formula too closely. The first act is the most formulaic of all the acts so this is an easy trap to fall into.
Your job is to look for little ways to surprise the reader in the first act. So for example, as we were going along here, we got the typical scene where Nathan takes over a meeting and wows them with his pitch. We set up the work problem that needs to be solved. And then he asks his girlfriend to marry him. I thought, “Here we go. She’s going to say yes and everything is going to be perfect in his life before the evil stalker girl enters and ruins it.” But I was wrong. His girlfriend says “No.”
And that may seem like a minor thing. But little surprises count. Remember, formula works. It’s the reason it’s used over and over again. But one of your jobs as a writer is to HIDE the fact that you’re using a formula. And an unexpected surprise can do that.
Now I can’t tell you exactly why this script didn’t get to that next level in Hollywood’s eyes, but I can take a guess. CTRL’s biggest issue, in my opinion, is a lack of subtlety. One of the great things about Fatal Attraction was how Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest character BUILDS. One of the most memorable moments in that film (and in film history) was the rabbit-boiling scene. But the reason that moment was so memorable was because we built up to it.
Before that, Alex seemed like a normal, if slightly obsessed, woman. It took her buttons being repeatedly pressed to get her to a place of “PURE PSYCHO I’M BOILING YOUR RABBIT MOTHERF&%$ER.” With Olivia, we get that moment almost immediately. She starts screaming on a plane that she’s going to take it down the night after they have sex.
And things only got crazier from there. After the government got involved, Olivia shot Nathan with a tranquilizer gun then snuck him back to her place where she tied him up. It was too much. There were a few more fun surprises later on, but things just got too crazy too quickly.
You have to give props to the Sonntags for not giving us a Fatal Attraction clone, but there had to be a way to build this story more gradually. I mean the idea is genius. This is an area of people’s lives that they’re getting more and more sensitive about – the fear of having their privacy breached. And this character personifies that. But the reason Fatal Attraction is the go-to movie in this genre is because it FEELS realistic. It feels like it could happen to you. This stopped feeling like it could happen to me after the plane scene.
With that said, I can see why the script got attention. This is definitely a movie idea. And that’s the thing you have to remember. It’s much easier to get a great concept with average execution made than it is an average concept with great execution made. That’s because the potential audience for your film CANNOT SEE THE EXECUTION ON A BILLBOARD. They can only see the concept. So always keep that in mind.
If I hear they made this script more realistic, I’ll be buying a ticket. But in its current state, this one wasn’t for me.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: A step-ladder to becoming a professional screenwriter:
1) Make it to the second round of a major contest.
2) Make it to the semi-finals of a major contest.
3) Win (or place Top 5 in) a major contest.
4) Get a manager.
5) Make the Hit List.
6) Option a script.
7) Get an agent.
8) Make the Black List.
9) Get hired for a professional assignment.
10) Sell a script.
11) Get one of your scripts produced.
In an industry where it’s very hard to judge where you stand, this is a nice rough guide as far as milestones to try and hit. There will be some you skip and some you hit simultaneously. But if you’re looking for a general progress meter, this is a path many writers take.