Premise: After a priest stumbles across the execution of a Mexican family who were trying to cross the border, he finds himself hunted by the killers.
About: This script sold two years ago in a mid-six-figure deal. The writer, Mike Maples, has been at the game for awhile, with his first and only feature credit, Miracle Run, being made back in 2004. Padre was pitched as being in the vein of No Country for Old Men and A History of Violence. Like I always say, guys, find those buzz-worthy movie titles to compare your script to. Whether it be “Fargo on the moon” or just, “This is the next Seven.”
Writer: Mike Maples
Details: 100 pages – undated
There are two types of screenwriters trying to break into the business. There are the ones who grew up on big fun movies who want to bring those same good vibes to the masses, and there are the ones who want to say something important with their work, who want to make “serious” films.
Take a guess which ones have an easier time getting into Hollywood.
That’s one of the first pieces of advice I’d give to anyone getting into screenwriting. Write something marketable. Yet when I run into one of these serious types, the suggestion of marketability is akin to asking them to copulate with a rhinoceros. They feel like they’re “selling out” if they even consider the masses while writing in their vintage 1982 moleskin notebook. It’s almost as if they’d prefer wallowing in obscurity for the rest of their lives, attempting to push that Afghani coming-of-age story, than break through with a strong horror premise AND THEN write their anti-Hollywood film.
Well if today’s script tells us anything, it’s that it IS possible to sell a thoughtful more serious spec. It doesn’t happen often. But it can happen. Let’s figure out what today’s writer did that was so special.
40 year-old Gideon Moss is a priest who lives just north of the Mexican border. While everyone else in the area is furious about illegal immigrants crossing into their country, Gideon regularly delivers water and food to those at the end of their journey.
One day, while on a run, he stumbles across a recently murdered family of Mexican immigrants. A quick look around and he spots, in the distance, a couple of locals staring at him. Doesn’t take much to add 2 and 2 together.
Figuring they’ve been made, the men, a part of a bigger militia, barge into Gideon’s church later that week during a sermon, round up him and all the Mexicans, take them to the desert, bury them alive, then crucify Gideon on a cross. Gotta give it to these guys for creativity.
Left to bleed out, Gideon escapes, and starts hunting the gang down one by one. Oh, there’s one last problem I forgot to mention. The militia? They’re all cops. So it’s not like our pal Gideon can ask for a helping hand. Lucky for him, and unlucky for the baddies, he has a very military-friendly past.
Okay, so this isn’t exactly an Afghani coming-of-age story, but it fits a rule that I push on writers attempting to write “serious” films. Make sure there’s at least one dead body. While there may be a temptation to mirror real life and call your script ‘realistic,’ the reality is that film is larger than life. You have to have at least one larger-than-life element in your story. A dead body fits that criteria.
Also, if you’re going to write one of these serious scripts, you need to be descriptive. You need to have the power of picture-painting. Your world is decidedly less exciting than 12 superheroes battling each other on an airport tarmac. So you have to make up for that in your ability to place your reader inside your world. A truck can’t just drive. It has to exist, as Maples shows us here: “A rooster tail of dust billows behind the truck and hangs in the still scorched air.”
It should also be mentioned that if you’re going to write this type of script, you have to have the skill to actually pull it off. The most painful scripts to read are the ones where writers without any skill try and weave their way through complex descriptive sentences. For example, they’d re-word the above into… “The truck lampoons the stretch of road with forest trees all around it and shifts into gear like a rocket out of hell.” Honestly, I read a lot of lines like that.
Also, you have to have dialogue skills for these scripts. When someone offers to help Gideon, despite the risks involved, he doesn’t reply, “No, your life is too valuable,” he replies, “Leave it be. Your box is thirty years down the line. No use taking a short cut.” That’s a professional line of dialogue right there. Or later we get this exchange, which takes place between the badass villain and one of his dim-witted minions: “What the fuck is this?” “You just squandered five of the ten words in your vocabulary, son. Keep the rest for later.”
Padre also utilizes two tropes that tend to work well in film. The first is the priest who’s not so priestly, and the second is the cop who’s not so friendly. As we like to preach around these parts, always look for irony in your story. Corrupt cops are as ironic as it gets. So are murdering priests. Usually, you only see one of these in a movie. It was fun to read a script where we got both.
And there were just little professional spikes that set this apart from the average amateur script. For example, a little girl is killed in that scene where the bad guys round up everyone in the church and bury them alive. Now normally, a writer would think that was enough. Nobody likes to see a little girl die. We’ll hate the bad guys even more and want to see them go down.
But Maples makes sure that we SET UP A SCENE WITH THIS GIRL EARLIER. So one of the first scenes is Gideon visiting a nurse friend at the hospital. The nurse gives him drugs to pass to the little girl, who’s sick at home because she’s illegal and can’t afford hospital care. Gideon delivers the medicine to the girl, so that we know her and care about her (not to mention doubles as a Save The Cat moment!). That makes her later death a thousand times more impactful. Amateur writers rarely think to do this sort of thing.
If there’s a knock against the script, it’s that it feels a little familiar. There are usually 3-4 of these kinds of scripts on the Black List each year. And I wasn’t a fan (spoiler) of the revelation that Gideon used to be a Black Ops soldier. It seemed like a lazy choice, and honestly, I don’t think it was necessary. Gideon comes off as badass enough that you don’t need to make him even more badass with some backstory title. But outside of that, this was a strong script.
[ ] 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 a script like this, be honest with yourself and make sure your writing is at the level required to pull it off. I’m not saying you don’t have to know how to write to write “Neighbors.” But the skill level of putting words together is decidedly less important with scripts like Neighbors or Deeper. With drama, you will be judged more harshly on your writing ability, because your job is to set a mood and a tone with your writing, something that takes a lot of time and practice to master.