Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Thriller
Premise: A Midwestern wife/schoolteacher begins to suspect that her husband’s cheating on her, so enlists the help of a fellow teacher she has the hots for to catch him in the act.
About: This was the #1 script on the 2013 Black List. Some of you will probably be depressed to hear that the writer, Andrew Sodroski, attended Harvard, implying that in order to be a top screenwriter, one must be Ivy League educated. But fear not, Sodroski’s road was not an easy one. He’s been writing since at least 2007 (when he wrote his only other known credit, a video short titled, “The Handmaid”), and therefore had to put in plenty of blood sweat and tears to get to this point. Wait, I don’t know if that makes us feel better or worse. If someone from Harvard is having a tough time breaking into Hollywood, what does that say about the rest of us?? Anyway, the script is being directed by heavy-hitting documentarian Errol Morris (this will be his first feature) and have Naomi Watts in the lead role.
Writer: Andrew Sodroski
Details: 117 pages
I suppose I should be excited that I’m one of the few people reading today’s script who’s actually BEEN to Holland, Michigan. I’m thinking that makes me better than everyone else somehow. Not sure how that would be, exactly, but I’m working on it.
What I don’t seem to have perspective on is why the number 1 Black List script had so few votes this year (45 I think?). I remember a couple of years ago when The Imitation Game, the number 1 script on the list, had like 120 votes. What does this mean? That not as many people are voting on the Black List? Or does it mean there are actually a lot more good scripts in town and the votes are more evenly dispersed (or possibly the opposite – there’s nothing good so they’re more evenly dispersed)? I’m not sure. But the low vote count is tickling (tee-hee) my concerned bone. Let’s untickle it with a little review, shall we?
“Holland, Michigan” is a strange little script. The first half is basically a combination of past Black List entries “The Details,” “The Oranges,” and “Jeff Who Lives At Home.” It’s a quirky little story about a Midwestern teacher named Nancy Vandergroot (nailed the Midwestern name) who’s feeling a little stuck in life. Much of this is via her own doing, though she doesn’t realize it. This is that woman in town who lives by God’s word, and who’s never performed an evil deed in her life.
Nancy has a wonderful little boy, Harry, and an optometrist husband, Fred, who spends the majority of his free time on his elaborate train set in the basement. To say that Nancy is a little jealous of that train set is a Midwestern understatement.
Well one day, Nancy is going through her jewelry box, only to realize that one of her earrings is missing. At first she suspects the babysitter, but after conferring with another teacher at her school, reformed bad-boy Dave, he convinces her to look deeper before she convicts anyone. She does, and is surprised when she stumbles across a group of Polaroid pictures in her husband’s basement.
Strangely, most of the pictures are of the model houses he’s built into his train set, but one is of a woman, and this is when she begins to suspect what was previously unfathomable. That her husband is cheating on her. After doing some more investigating, she gets a reluctant Dave (who she’s beginning to see romantically) to follow her husband on his next business trip in hopes of catching him in the act.
Dave does, and here is where we move past the mid-point, and EVERYTHING changes. I will say this. I was wondering what the big deal was about Holland, Michigan through those first 60 pages. I mean don’t get me wrong. It was good. A fun look at Midwestern America. I just didn’t understand what about it was “No. 1 Worthy.” However, when we find out what Fred is REALLY doing on these business trips and what’s really going on with his elaborate train set, let’s just say you immediately understand why the script snagged the top spot.
Okay, since you can’t discuss this script without spoilers, I’ll warn you when they’re coming. But I wanted to start by saying even before the twist came around, there was some pretty good writing to admire.
What stuck out to me was that all the characters had something they were doing. In a character piece, that’s essential. I see too many amateur writers giving only their hero and romantic lead “things” to do. Good writers give everyone something to do. So here, Fred, the husband, is all about his train set. Harry, the son, is all about getting ready for a dance he’s doing at the upcoming fair. Nancy is first obsessed with her missing earring, and then later with her husband’s potential infidelity. And Dave is trying to help a struggling student in one of his classes. These pursuits are what individualize and deepen your characters. Without them, they’re more “words on a page” than “people in a world.”
And as I always say, even when you’re writing these smaller character-driven pieces, you still want to use a goal to drive the story. That’s because goals KEEP YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS ACTIVE, which is exactly how Nancy is drawn. At first, she’s looking into who stole her earring, and that leads to her following clues to determine if her husband is cheating on her. This is the action that drives the story along. It’s why we keep turning the pages. If Nancy’s simply hanging out with friends, bitching about her husband, we get bored quickly. She NEEDS THAT GOAL. The story NEEDS TO PUSH TOWARDS SOMETHING.
(spoilers) Okay, now we’ll get into why this script kicks ass. Holland, Michigan has a great little twist. We realize that Fred is not, in fact, having affairs. He’s killing these women. And all the beautifully crafted perfectly detailed houses on his model train set? Those are his trophies. Those are the houses of all the women he’s killed. Oh no!
I LOVED this twist. Twists are always a balancing act. You can’t oversell them beforehand or we’re going to know they’re coming. You can’t undersell them either, or when they happen, we’re going to be like, “Where the hell did that come from?” Holland, Michigan got that balance about as right as I’ve ever seen it. Because when it happened, I was shocked. But at the same time, I said, “Of course!” And remembered all the clues that had been set up. An expertly crafted major twist is the kind of writing that gets Black List voters drooling.
My problem with the script is more about what comes afterwards. I’m not going to get into details, but I think the script tried too hard to live up to its huge twist, and have that third act feel just as big and crazy as the twist itself. As a result, we get a series of questionable choices (Dave deciding to clean up the crime scene he caught Fred in?) and a finale that felt more like an ode to Fatal Attraction than the unique genre-bending script we’d been reading.
Then again, that’s the gamble you take with a script like this. We essentially have a quirky indie black comedy in the script’s first half, then a straight up thriller in the second. Whether you like it or not, there’s going to be some screenwriting collateral damage from that choice.
But man, that twist was so damn good and unexpected, it made me remember why I love reading scripts so much – it’s to find stuff like Holland, Michigan. It’s by no means a perfect script, but definitely worth the read.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Characters who are stuck in life (like Nancy, or Lester from American Beauty) who are then “set free,” are always interesting because they’re essentially fish-out-of-water characters, and fish-out-of-water characters are fun to watch. Here are these people who have been “good” all their lives, now getting to be “bad.” – I mean how can you screw that up? Indeed, Nancy is fun to watch for this very reason.
What I learned 2: A friendly reminder to always look for ways to spice up your dialogue. Never go with the expected response. In a great little scene where Fred (who’s an eye doctor) gives Dave an eye exam, they finish up and Fred tells Dave that his eyes are good. Now I want you to think of how you’d write that line of Fred’s. Go ahead, write down what you might have him say. A lazy writer might throw in something like, “Everything looks good.” Sure, it gets the point across, but it’s boring, right? Instead, Sodroski has Fred say, “Well sir, we like to say that only God has perfect vision, but you come pretty darned close.” It’s a sentence that has so much more life to it. What line did you come up with? Share it in the comments. ☺