Premise: A man’s world is thrown into disarray when an alien virus takes over the planet and he becomes the only being the virus cannot infiltrate.
About: This is a big sci-fi spec that just sold recently, and the news that makes this sale even cooler is that Fargo TV creator Noah Hawley will be directing it. That Fargo TV show, particuarly the second season, was some of the best television I’ve seen in a long time – the closest thing we got to Breaking Bad since Breaking Bad. And it even added UFOs into the mix. Walter White ain’t never had a UFO to play around with. Uh, yeah, count me in.
Writer: Joseph J. Greenberg
Details: 98 pages
You guys want to kill me with these late posts – I know – but there’s not much I can do about it. I’ll try to get back on schedule. Pray for me. But in the meantime, enjoy this sweet-ass spec script.
30-something “Man” is your average suburban husband who goes on daily killing sprees. Usually he uses guns. But when he wants to spice things up, he uses the axe. That makes the killings extra juicy.
The people Man kills aren’t exactly upset about the ordeal. They’ve gotten used to it. In fact, Man could send an axe blade through the head of a 13 year-old boy and a nearby elderly woman will just sigh.
So what the fuck is going on with Man? Well, the better question is probably, what the fuck is going on with earth? Three years ago, an alien virus arrived and infiltrated every living being, turning them into a giant unified networked organism. Technically, everybody is still themselves, but they’re being controlled by a universal AI that only cares about itself.
Everyone, that is, except for Man. The alien organism can’t seem to assimilate Man, which is really frustrating, man. As a result, Man walks around killing people to both deal with his depression and piss the aliens off.
Then one day, things change. A mutation has begun to occur in certain people, causing them to attack others. Not like the way Man does – the attacks are more planned, and they seem to be coming from someone else, someone else who, like Tom, can’t be controlled.
When Man learns that there are a tiny percentage of others out there like him, particularly a woman named Maya, he strikes a deal with the alien AI. He’ll kill all these mutations for the AI if he can meet Maya. The AI is hesitant. The danger of two pure-humans mating could have drastic effects on the network. But in the end, it may be the only way for it to survive.
Have you ever seen that really really really really really really really really bad movie, The Host? It was from the same woman who wrote Twilight? So, yeah, that should give you an idea of the level of quality there. Well “Man Alive” is like the cool version of that idea.
And actually, if you’re really serious about screenwriting and you have time, go watch The Host and then read this script, as it will show you how easy it is to take the same idea and make it either terrible or great.
One of the first lessons that Man Alive teaches us is the power of thinking non-linearly. It’s our default, as human beings, to think from beginning to end. And while that by no means ensures a bad story, the non-linear option allows for a lot more creativity.
Take the original Independence Day. I know, some people love this movie. But let’s be honest, the screenplay is terrible. And one of the reasons for that is that the story is embarrassingly linear. Earth is fine. Aliens arrive. Aliens blow shit up. Aliens attack. Earth fights back. There’s no creativity to it. So eventually, we get ahead of the story, and the only thing left to keep our interest is flashy special effects and Jeff Goldblum.
Man Alive does not start with the aliens arriving. It starts well afterwards. We are firmly entrenched in a world where the aliens have taken over. But the great thing about Man Alive is that it doesn’t stop there. It also doesn’t tell us yet who these aliens are or how they operate. In fact, we don’t even know there ARE aliens in the opening scene. We witness a man go on an axe-murdering spree and promptly wonder, “What the fuck is going on and why is nobody trying to stop this guy?”
This is the power of non-linear. If you can drop the audience inside unique situations they don’t understand yet and play with them, you can have a lot of fun.
There is a danger to being too obscure early. The audience can become confused, even frustrated. But that tends to be a writing issue, not a conceptual issue. You have to make sure you’re ultra clear with the pieces of information you convey so that things aren’t too confusing, and Greenberg does a great job with that. His writing style is very crisp, very non-flashy, very to the point. That’s the kind of writing you need – writing that won’t be misinterpreted.
Man Alive is also a great example of a spec-friendly idea. I was trying to explain this to a writer the other day who wrote this big sprawling period piece that was beautiful and dramatic and character-driven and had something to say about the world.
But trying to fit those kinds of ideas inside of the spec format is like trying to fit a square peg inside a round hole. The spec format likes flashy ideas that are genre-driven, that get to the point quickly, that move fast, that have high stakes, and that feel big and unique. That’s not to say writing that kind of idea is the only way to succeed in the spec market. But it’s the outfit that looks best on the spec body. So when you’re dressing outside of that style, expect it to be hard.
I really liked this script. I really liked this writer. Since the writing was so simple, so straight-to-the-point, it never got in the way, allowing the story to be the star. And what a story it was. If you’re a sci-fi screenwriter, you need to study this screenplay to see what a good sci-fi spec reads like.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Man Alive pulls the low-budget genre trick off perfectly. The low-budget genre trick is you come up with a big genre idea, then approach it in a way where you’ll have minimal special effects work. We have a full-on alien invasion here. And yet the studio doesn’t have to spend a dime on alien special effects. Because the aliens are all inside the human beings. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference when your script is being evaluated for purchase.