When I read this script a long time ago, I hated it. But numerous people have told me over the years that I was wrong, that this script was great. So I gave it another shot. And you know what, they just may have been right!
Premise: A group of friends find a recently deceased’s author’s manuscript and decide to publish it under their name.
About: This is a Black List script all the way back from 2008 and one I’ve been meaning to review for awhile. I actually read this back in 2008 and didn’t like it. However there are some extenuating circumstances about the read that I’ll get into in a sec. In the meantime, I’ve heard several people mention over the years that I got this one wrong. That Manuscript is a really good screenplay. This is what motivated me to pick it back up.
Writer: Paul Grellong
Details: 8/6/2008 draft
A little backstory here. I read this a LOOOOOOOONG time ago. And I reviewed it somewhere. It may have been on Scriptshadow or it may have been in a comments section on another site. But I specifically remember reading it quickly. I had some pressing matter and had to zip through the script fast. And it always bugged me that maybe I didn’t give it a chance.
I think this is a writer’s worst fear. That the reader won’t give them a fair shot. And the truth is, sometimes they don’t. Readers are human beings with deadlines, day-to-day pressures, personal lives. Sometimes your script is the last thing they have to tackle before getting to see their boyfriend that night, or going out with their girl crew. Who do you think gets preferential treatment in that scenario? Hint. It’s not your screenplay.
This is why I advise making those first 5 pages awesome. It may be your only shot at reeling the reader in. It’s not unlike approaching a beautiful girl at a bar. If you do something unforgettable right off the bat, you just may convince her to give you a shot. But if you come in slow and drone on, it’ll probably end up in a half hour conversation to nowhere. Or worse.
If I remember correctly, Manuscript did not start out strong and that’s what led to me mentally tuning out. “Oh, this isn’t any good,” I thought, and upped the pace, wanting to get through it quickly.
Well, this time, I’ve got nothing to do but read this script. So let’s hope with this newfound focus, Manuscript does something for Present Carson it couldn’t do for Past Carson.
Elizabeth may not be a literary phenom yet. But she’s doing okay. At 21, she’s already published a successful young adult novel. Elizabeth seems like a nice girl. Lives in New York. Doesn’t have a lot of money. Lucked into a rich boyfriend, Chris, who’s got a little bit of Patrick Batemen in him (he runs TWICE a day).
Elizabeth is feeling the pressure from her publishing house to get another book out, and to take her mind off it, Chris wants her to meet his good friend, David, an aspiring novelist himself. David seems enamored with Elizabeth, particularly how she burst onto the scene with a New Yorker article at just 17 years old. He’s shameless in saying he wishes he had her career.
And then Chris leaves the room. And Elizabeth and David drop the act. The two know each other. Not only that, they used to sleep together. It was at a writing camp where the 16 year old Elizabeth went through David’s notebook and found that article, stole it, and sent it to the New Yorker under her name. Turns out Elizabeth isn’t so innocent after all. And when David threatened to expose her, she reminded him that he’d been having sex with a minor.
Back to now, where Chris and David bring Elizabeth over to their friend’s place, a once-famous author who’s now a local drug dealer. When they get there, they find him dead, but with a typed manuscript nearby. Chris grabs it, and when the three realize that it’s the only copy, Elizabeth comes up with the idea of publishing it under her name.
Chris is horrified by the idea. David isn’t surprised but wants no part of it. Until Elizabeth promises to use the buzz from the new book to get David signed with her agents and to start the career he so desperately wants. David reluctantly agrees, but when things start going well and Elizabeth isn’t holding up her end of the bargain, he begins to wonder if he’s made a giant mistake.
I remember now why I disliked this. I’ve never been a fan of talky New York movies and there’s a very specific reason why. I feel like New Yorkers believe their city and their lives are so interesting that all their scripts need to be about for you to enjoy them is them talking about life. Because of their big flashy New York opinions, we’re supposed to bow down and acknowledge how intelligent, wonderful, and cultured all New Yorkers are.
Yes, I admit, I may have some issues to work out there. I had a bad break up with a New York girl, okay. It’s complicated!
Truthfully, though, there’s only one good New York talky writer – Woody Allen. And he stopped making movies he gave a shit about years ago (now he just makes them to stay busy). So should anybody else even try?
It sure didn’t look like Manuscript tried. It opened with all the immediacy of a Tuesday night bingo game at the dollar store, which resulted in me wanting to bang myself over the head with the nearest manuscript. Maybe “Past Carson” got it right after all.
And then page 31 happened. That’s the moment when we find out that Elizabeth and David already know each other. There comes a moment in every script where you find out if it’s a movie or not. That moment happened here. We had ourselves a movie.
One thing that Manuscript taught me is that if all you’ve got to work with in your story is characters and dialogue, you better employ dramatic irony in some capacity. Dramatic irony is one of the most powerful writing tools there is, and it doesn’t require a single special effect, a single Hunger Game, a single super hero. All it requires is that one of your characters hide something important from another one of your characters.
And once we realized David and Elizabeth were hiding their previous relationship from Chris, we were hooked. This ensured that EVERY SINGLE CONVERSATION between the three now contained subtext. We knew something Chris did not. That made the dialogue a hundred times more interesting.
Another thing you need in talky scripts is TWISTS. Characters need to turn on characters. There needs to be a clever surprise or a shock that we weren’t expecting. And that happens here when (spoiler!) it turns out David and Chris were playing Elizabeth all along. There was no famous writer’s manuscript. It was a ruse designed to expose Elizabeth, and she took the bait.
All of this made for an exciting adventure that, after page 31, flew. But therein lies the script’s biggest problem. It took until page 31 to make us care. And that’s dangerous territory in today’s “ENTERTAIN ME NOW” society. We’ve talked about this before. Slow builds can work but you’ve got to employ a carefully constructed plan to keep the slow stuff exciting until the fast stuff arrives, and Manuscript didn’t do that.
Hence why I mentally gave up on it last time. And a reminder that all readers are looking to go into “skim-mode” as soon as possible. As soon as they decide your script doesn’t have the goods, it’s skim time. And what tells them you don’t have the goods may be beginning red-flag mistakes, or it may be like Manuscript, where not enough is happening for too long a period of time.
I don’t fuck around with that shit. “ABE” god dammit. Always Be Entertaining. Always keep the reader invested. It doesn’t have to be through fast-means either. Do it with suspense, mystery, intrigue, anticipation, foreshadowing. But if you take 30 pages to set your story up, even if your script DOES make the Black List, it might not have enough juice to get made.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I think this script failed to become a movie because it took too long to get going. In this day and age, you need to hook the reader early. That’s not to say you need to hook them with your main concept. But you need to hook them with something that keeps them around UNTIL you hook them with your main concept. I just watched this short about a loser who takes care of his niece for a day. Take a look at how the short opens. It’s an immediate hook. We’re interested. Nobody walks away from that opening going, “Borrrrring. Pass.” You gotta hook people. Gotta hook!