Genre: True Story
Premise: How the best-selling autobiography of all time, The Diary of Anne Frank, navigated an endless number of rejections to get published.
About: This is one of, if not the, most prestigious spec sale of the year so far. It sold to Fox Searchlight in January after a bidding war. The spec comes from the writing team of Samuel Franco and Evan Kilgore, who leapt onto the scene last year with their spec, Mayday 109, about a lesser known heroic tale from John F. Kennedy’s youth.
Writers: Samuel Franco & Evan Kilgore
Details: 107 pages
Today’s script is part of a new growing trend of specs about deeper weightier historical subjects. The trend is seen as an evolution of the biopic craze dominating the market these last few years. There are only so many cradle-to-grave (or young man-to-crowning achievement) stories you can tell before audiences rebel. So writers have adapted and are giving us true stories that are more contained, and as much about the story as the person.
The reason this is happening is because movie stars need vehicles. The blockbusters have become bigger than them, leaving their only route to prestige and notoriety the Oscars. How do you win Oscars? True stories about real people that resonate with audiences. Hence why this spec trend is growing.
Do I like this trend? Not really. At heart, I’m a sucker for a great idea born purely out of a talented writer’s imagination. But until one of you Scriptshadow readers blows the doors off of Hollywood with some killer fictional spec and start a new trend, I’m stuck with what we’ve got.
And, truth be told, when these scripts are good, they can be really good. I actually reconnected with Anne Frank’s diary recently. It itself is a masterful demonstration of the power of simplicity in writing. So I’m curious to see where Franco and Kilgore take this.
Keeper of the Diary follows two main characters. The first is Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank. We meet Otto when he and his family are first found by the Nazis in the Annex, then when he’s released from his concentration camp a year later. Otto is devastated when he finds out that his wife and daughter, who were at a different camp, are dead.
Five years later and an Atlantic Ocean away, we meet 23 year-old Barbara Zimmerman. Barbara was set to marry a wealthy man and live a comfortable life when she realized she didn’t want to be comfortable. She wanted to make a difference. So she canceled the wedding and ran off to New York to be a publisher at the prestigious Doubleday & Co. Unfortunately, because she’s a woman, she’s thrown in the typing room and forgotten about.
Meanwhile, Otto has zero reason to live. Everything he held dear has been taken away from him. But that changes when he reads his daughter’s diary. He sees a side of his daughter he never knew, one who was painfully insightful and impossibly optimistic. After he finishes it, he has purpose again – he must publish his daughter’s work. He must bring this same hope to others.
Back in New York, Barbara, while looking for a manuscript in the discarded bin, comes across The Diary of Anne Frank, which had already been discarded by two of Doubleday’s most trusted readers.
Barbara decides to give it a shot and is transported by the writing. She falls in love with Anne and her message, and she, too, makes it her destiny to publish her work. There’s only one problem, the two men who rejected the manuscript are her boss’s personal assistants. It seems that men don’t understand what a little girl could possibly know about war.
Otto isn’t having much luck with publishers in Europe either. Everyone seems to think that the book is too mature for kids and too juvenile for adults. The only publishing house even considering publishing it wants Otto to cut out 50,000 words and pay to produce the book himself.
Will Barbara finally convince the bigwigs at Doubleday to give the manuscript a chance? Will Otto give up spreading his daughter’s message? We all know the answer. But what we don’t know is how it all came together, a question that Keeper of the Diary answers.
Let’s start with the first question that most people who’ve read this script will have – What’s up with the prose?? The prose here is thick. Like really really thick. If you told me to count how many times light was described reflecting off surfaces in Keeper of The Diary, I’d probably lose count.
What’s the deal, Carson? I thought you said we couldn’t write thick prose. Especially on the first page!
A couple of things are going on here. First, this is an historical weighty true story. And when you’re writing one of those, you have more leeway to thicken up the prose. It’s important when you’re writing about history to transport us there. That requires more detail, more description, more atmosphere. So I get it. Still, there was a TON of prose here. And I think the same thing could’ve been achieved with 20% less of it.
Another thing to keep in mind – and I know it’s something amateurs hate hearing – is that these guys had recently sold a big spec. This gives them a lot more leeway with reads. As an unknown, you simply don’t have that leeway, and therefore need to write for shorter attention spans.
Despite this, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s one rule that supersedes all others. If you do this one thing right, you can break every rule you want. And that’s write a great story. If your story is interesting, if it has great characters and suspense and mystery, and you’ve managed to create a big question (Will the diary get published??) that we want answered, that’s the most important thing.
To help drive this point home, imagine a flying saucer came down and beamed some guy into its ship then flew away. Then imagine you showed up literally one minute later and had missed the whole thing. It wouldn’t matter if the least qualified person to tell you that story – a drunk homeless man slurring every word – you would still be riveted by his story.
However, if you happened to run into JK Rowling at Starbucks and she began to tell you about a woman a second ago who almost spilled her coffee, you’d be like, “That’s great J.K. But I gotta get to work now.”
Keeper of the Diary was a great story. What’s so great about it is it doubles up in the underdog department. Underdogs are obsessively likable. Even more so if their cause is noble. Even more so if they’re good people. And that’s the case with both Otto and Barbara. These two are basically impossible not to root for. And when you’ve got that, you’ve got the foundation for a great script.
The script also does a clever job of integrating dramatic irony. We, of course, know that The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most important books ever published. So whenever somebody tells our heroes “no” or that the book “sucks,” we’re screaming through our screen: “Are you guys f&*%ing idiots!!??? This is the freaking Diary of Anne Frank! The most important autobiography ever!”
I call this “breaking the fourth wall” and it’s a clever way to approach well-known true stories because it engages the audience’s knowledge of the event and, sort of, uses it against them. James Cameron did the same thing with Titanic. We all know the ship is going to sink. So every time some smarmy oil magnate says it’s unsinkable, we’re screaming, “No it isn’t! Slow the damn thing down!”
Above all, Keeper of the Diary does the thing I always tell you to do: FIND A UNIQUE ANGLE INTO THE STORY. Had they simply adapted Anne Frank’s diary, it probably still would’ve been good because it’s a fascinating story. But it wouldn’t have been FRESH. And that’s why I’ll continue to bring this up whenever I see it. One of the biggest mistakes rookie writers make is they don’t find a fresh angle into their stories. They’re always giving us retreads of their favorite movies or favorite genres. Find that unique point-of-view and tell your story from it. It makes a huge difference in setting your script apart from the pack.
You’re going to want to bring your tissues to this read. It was really good. And despite debuting in January, it will probably finish atop this year’s Black List.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: You can break rules if you offset them by more important rules. In our opening page, the writers do something I tell you not to – provide a wall of text. However, they also follow a far more relevant rule – SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. The Nazis are charging towards the secret Annex and are about to find Anne Frank and the other families.