Premise: (from Black List) A mistreated elderly Inuit (Eskimo) woman is forced out of her village to survive alone on the savage arctic tundra.
About: This script finished with 9 votes on the 2015 Black List. This is a huge accomplishment when you consider the writer didn’t even have an agent. The Black List is dominated almost exclusively by writers repped at WME, CAA, and UTA because those scripts get sent out the most. Any script not from one of those companies has had maybe a fifth of the exposure. So for those scripts to get enough votes to make the vaunted list is an enormous accomplishment.
Writer: Michael Lee Barlin
Details: 97 pages
So I picked today’s script for a specific reason.
I was reading through loglines for potential scripts to review and I came across this one and I thought: That has to be the single most boring-sounding idea for a movie I’ve ever read. Therefore, if the writer can make THIS script good, that’s going to make me reevaluate how every writer should approach concept creation.
Truth be told, I’ve been thinking a lot about the changing landscape of concepts. It used to be “high concept high concept high concept.” But since all the “high concept” slots have been taken up by franchise films, it’s sorta forced spec writers in the other direction – to come up with a good dramatic idea with some meat to it. The plan, then, is to get on the Black List and get noticed that way.
But man, I don’t know. If THIS idea turns out to be great, it will probably be the most surprised I’ll have ever been reading a script. I don’t see how an idea this benign can be good. But you never know until you read. So let’s read!
Final Journey introduces us to 86 year-old Isha. Isha lives in a tribe of eskimos who aren’t exactly sentimental. That’s because when you get so old you can’t sew blankets, they tell you to walk out into the arctic tundra until you die of cold or starvation.
And I always thought killing baby seals were the eskimos best quality.
So this cold-ass eskimo tribe deems Isha unworthy of hanging around, and have a fake “We loved ya why u were around” ceremony, kicking Isha out of town, not sticking around long enough to see her past the horizon, since, you know, it’s fucking cold out and they need to get back to their igloos to warm up!
Isha is ready for death, even though the people she spent the last 86 years of her life with and who she loved more than anything just told her she was useless and to scram.
However, before nature can take its course, Isha runs into 14 year old Tato. Tato’s a cool little teenager who’s been sent out by his own tribe. Except at least he gets to come back home. IF he kills a polar bear that is. Which will officially make him a man.
At first, Tato’s annoyed by Isha. But when Isha starts stitching his clothes back together and giving him moral support, he starts to like her.
While the two speak different dialects and therefore can’t understand one another, they’re able to draw images to each other in the snow, and this rudimentary form of pictionary allows them to communicate.
When the polar bear finally comes around, Tato goes out to perform his duty. But things don’t go as planned, with Tato nearly getting ripped to shreds. It will be up to Isha to save Tato and get him home. But that job is a double-edged spear. If she gets her new friend home, it will mean completing her own mission, that being dying of starvation like her tribe so lovingly ordered her to do. That is unless Tato’s people find value in Isha in a way her tribe never could.
I’m going to start by saying the first words that came to mind after reading this.
Seriously. If this is what they do or ever did – they are some terrible people. Who the heck came up with this “tradition” anyway, the eskimo version of L. Ron Hubbard?
Getting back to the script, I’ll say this. This is the best execution you could’ve possibly pulled off for a movie about a woman who walks into the arctic tundra to die.
We’ve got a buddy-movie on display. Isha and Tato may not be Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. But they’re still pretty fun to watch. And unpredictable! I bet you didn’t see an 86 year old woman jacking off a 14 year old boy, did you? Yup, well, we get that scene in Final Journey.
We’ve also got a GOAL driving the story – something you might not expect to find in an artsy drama about eskimos. Tato needs to kill the polar bear (goal) before he can come home. And that goal gets us through the rest of the narrative, which covers the growing friendship between Isha and Tato.
And the script is pretty clever as well. At the beginning, we’re informed that even though the characters will be speaking throughout the film, that there will be NO subtitles. So how do you convey what the characters are saying to each other without subtitles?
Well, what Barlin did was he had Isha and Tato speak different dialects. So they couldn’t understand each other. This forced them to draw pictures in the snow to communicate. And because the audience can also see those pictures, THAT’S how we understood what they were saying to each other.
A lesser writer may have made the dialects the same and therefore missed out on this opportunity.
But let’s be honest here. How does a movie like this get made? I mean… it’s different, that’s for sure. So it’s going to look unique. It’s going to take us to a place we’ve never been before. But our leads are an 86 year old woman and a 14 year old boy. Both of these demos are squarely outside the studio friendly 18-34 year old white male.
With that said, this story does hit you on an emotional level. Especially the ending (spoiler), where Isha is welcomed into Tato’s tribe with loving arms, but she chooses to complete her mission anyway, only this time with the support and love of people who care about her instead of those who cast her off like a loaf of moldy bread.
I have to give it to the writer. He went against every rule in the book in writing this, found a way to keep us interested, and made the Black List. Even if the film doesn’t get made, that feat alone is worth a read.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re going to write something really artsy? At the very least, make the situation life-or-death. Because if it’s just characters waltzing around doing shit with no consequences, those are the scripts that are truly the most boring. This script may have been about a grandma eskimo, but the stakes were life and death for both our main characters, and that provided the script with the weight it needed for us to care about the characters’ journey.
Scriptshadow Reader Question of the Day: What is the most unmarketable idea you’ve ever written? And where does that screenplay rank in your slate of finished screenplays?