Genre: True Story
Premise: (from Black List) Google’s Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt struggle with their corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” in the face of their meteoric rise to a multi-billion dollar valuation and a major Chinese hacking incident.
About: This script finished with 10 votes on last year’s Black List, putting it in the top 25. It’s based on a couple of books, the more popular being “In the Plex,” about Google. The three writers who adapted this are all newbies. Two of them, Diani and Devine, have mostly focused on acting.
Writers(!): Gabriel Diani & Etta Devine & Evan Bates, based on “In The Plex” by Steven Levy & “I’m Feeling Lucky” by Douglas Edwards
Details: 122 pages (June 2017 draft)
The Big Short and The Social Network ushered in a new quasi-genre I like to call the Tricked Out Geek True Story. They take what should be nerdy subject matter and INFUSE it with a hip style, cool characters, and loads of energy. The reason the genre’s worked so far is that it orders up a powerful item on the screenwriting “secret menu,” that being irony. They present a GEEKY story in a COOL way. If you present a geeky story in a geeky way, that’s kind of on-the-nose, isn’t it?
“Don’t Be Evil” is Google’s introduction into this genre and boy does it want you to love it. This script is so intent on winning you over that it will do whatever it takes. Ongoing hip voice over narration. You got it. Staring into the camera and breaking the fourth wall. You better believe it. Recklessly cutting between six different time periods. You bet your ass we’re not stopping at five. Characters constantly referencing screenwriting terminology. Oh, hell yes. We got that too. How does this overcranked CPU stack up? Let’s find out.
It’s 2009 and Google’s just been hacked by the Chinese. At least that’s what Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, believes. Larry is our eyes and ears in this story, our “Ferris Bueller” if you will. That’s a good way to think of him because… well because the script tells us to think of him that way.
The story uses the Chinese hack as a starting point into how Google was born. We jump all the way back to Larry’s childhood, when he read a biography on Nikola Tesla, the famed inventor. The moral of Tesla’s biography was – you can’t just be a good inventor. You have to be good at business too.
Larry’s right hand man is Sergey, a programmer who grew up in communist Russia and therefore hates other communist countries, like China. He’s joined by Google’s head of security, Heather Adkins, and Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, a man who was forced upon Larry by his investors since Larry didn’t know jack about running a business.
Amidst this Chinese hack, the team desperately tries to hold onto its company motto: Don’t Be Evil. After jumping back through a million time periods, we learn that this motto came about due to Larry’s belief that all corporations put their profits in front of their customers and he wanted Google to be the first company that didn’t do that.
The Chinese hack is the first time Google is faced with a decision that threatens their fabled motto. The quandary goes like this. The group feels they have a moral obligation to let their users know that their data has been compromised by China. However, if they do this, it would expose the Chinese, who would likely then kick Google out of their country. Since China represents billions of dollars in potential profits, this is an extremely hard decision.
As we get closer to the decision, we continue to take more diversions into the past, where the characters self-referentially remind us that they know they’re relying heavily on backstory and flashbacks, but that it will all make sense in the end. That end comes with Larry making the final call on the hack, which will inform the path that Google takes from this point forward.
Something we haven’t talked about in awhile is level of difficulty. If your routine incorporates six triple-axels and this is the first time you’ve ever skated, you’re probably not going to execute your routine. Don’t Be Evil was like three skaters trying to win the Olympics their first time out. Not even a brand new Zamboni could clean up the aftermath.
My newbie antennae goes up whenever I see FLASH. If a script is dominated by flashiness – talking to the camera, lots of self-referencing, tons of flashbacks, etc. – it’s usually an indication of a new writer. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. After an NSA agent is introduced, we get: “She’s completely fictional because there’s no way anyone is giving the screenwriters any information about Google’s very real relationship with the NSA.” Seasoned writers have failed enough times to know that flash is fool’s gold and that substance – deep characters, a well-designed plot, conflict-filled scenes, etc. – is your best bet at writing a good script.
What complicates this analysis is that the theme of this story is actually pretty strong, this question of is it possible for a corporation not to be evil? So it masks, at times, the attention deficit disorder writing that surrounds it. But, in the end, the script can’t escape this obsessive need to make you love it. It wants to be The Big Short. But it’s like The Big Short written by Max Landis, if that makes sense.
For example, the creation of deep characters. Outside of that first Larry Page flashback scene where he reads Tesla’s biography, I can’t remember a single scene where we actually get to know someone. And that’s because the script was so intent on never staying anywhere for any amount of time. It was like BAM, time to jump to the next flashback!! Contrast this with The Social Network, which gave you 8 entire minutes with our main character in the film’s very first scene (the breakup scene). We learned so much about Mark Zuckerberg in that scene.
Not to mention, reading a book is a lazy way to introduce a character. If you want to introduce a character in a way where we get to know them, do it through action. Preferably, give them a tough choice. We learn so much about characters when they’re faced with a choice. If you try and jump the line and never write the 4-5 scripts that teach you this, you’ll never know how to properly introduce a character, which is one of the most influential moments in a screenplay.
And I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the writers kept referencing screenwriting! Here’s a real exchange between characters in the story: “I found something important.” “I thought you were in New Zealand?” “I came over during that flashback.” It was bizarre. This story had nothing to do with screenwriting. It’s about Google and hacking. Maybe had they referenced movie cliches, that would’ve made more sense. But for some reason screenwriting became this huge theme in the script.
Now does all of this mean you should never use too-cool-for-school writing techniques? No. The Big Short obviously proved that it’s possible. But The Big Short was written by one writer, Charles Randolph, whose credits dated back over a decade, and another, Adam McKay, who had over 30 credits. These guys know how to navigate the potholes that come with this kind of writing style.
Figure out how to write simple stories first. Introduce a big problem, which results in a strong goal, for a compelling main character, with some urgency and high stakes. There wasn’t a single compelling character in this movie. The problem the characters are dealing with is arguably compelling. But we know nothing about anyone so it doesn’t matter. And that’s the kind of thing writing a simple story forces you to learn – how to construct a compelling character.
Reading my review back, it sounds harsher than I meant it to. This is the kind of thing everybody who jumps into a new medium does. They go for big and flashy because big and flashy gets noticed. And with this making the Black List, you can say that it worked. But if you want to work in this business a long time, you gotta learn the basics. And no basics were on display here.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you jump around in time too frequently, the reader never gets pulled in. I’d say this script jumped to a different time period, on average, once every 5 pages. I couldn’t get invested in the story because the story never slowed down enough for me to understand what I was investing in.