Premise: In 1976, during a critical point in the Cold War, a Russian female spy is assigned to get close to an American spy who may have information on one of Russia’s biggest moles.
About: Red Sparrow is a best selling novel that won the Edgar Award for best first novel, given to author Jason Matthews. The book has since been adapted by Eric Warren Singer, who scripted the very good American Hustle. I’m a little confused over what I’m reading today, since the book deals with a modern day spy story, and the script sets us back in the heart of the Cold War. Either way, they’re planning on this being a franchise, with at least 3 films. It will star Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.
Writer: Eric Warren Singer (based on the novel by Jason Matthews)
Details: 132 pages – undated
I’m curious what they’re going to do here. Because one of my first criticisms after reading the script was, “You’re really going to set a major Hollywood picture in Russia in 1976?” Like, are you purposefully trying to make it so no one shows up?
Then I heard the novel was set in the present day, which at least made more sense from a marketing standpoint. Here’s the problem with that, though. Today’s relations between the U.S. and Russia do not have the same dramatic effect as the “at any moment the world could blow up” period of the Cold War. So there are pros and cons to going either way. Maybe they’ve since come back to the modern-day storyline after this Trump-Putin stuff. I don’t know.
So we shouldn’t take this script to be representative of the final product. Still, there’s a lot to learn from it, most notably how a writer should know when and when not to cut plot. So let’s dive in.
It’s 1976 and Dominique “Dom” Egorov is a honeytrap, a Russian spy who specializes in making marks fall in love with her so she can steal their information and pass it back to the motherland. We meet Dom as one of her lovers realizes she’s a spy and what that means for his career, and therefore slits his wrists right there in front of her. Dom, who’s spent every day of the last six weeks with this man, calmly walks out the door, not even the slightest hint of emotion on her face.
Cut to Nate Nash, a reckless CIA agent stationed in Russia, whose key contact, Major General Vladimir “Korch” Korchnol, has provided the U.S. with amazing intel for over 15 years. But after Nate gets fingered by the KGB, the US has no choice but to send him on some meaningless mission in Greece.
In the meantime, the Russians now know that one of them has been feeding information to Nash. They just don’t know who yet. This is why the Russians send their best honeytrap, Dom, to Greece, to see if she can get Nash to give up some clues as to who the mole might be.
After a lot of surveillance, Dom makes her move, and of course Nash instantly falls for her. She’s a honeytrap for goodness sakes! The problem is, Dom falls for him too! We then cut back and forth between their romance and the Russian team back in Moscow getting closer and closer to discovering that Korch is the mole. Will Nash find out he’s being honeytrapped in time to save his buddy? Or will poor Korch become Korch meat?
I think they have a good movie in Red Sparrow. But they haven’t found it yet in this script. Here’s the thing you want to keep in mind whenever you’re writing a spy romance. Are you ready?
THEY’RE ALL THE FUCKING SAME!!!!!!
It’s a good setup. Don’t get me wrong. You have two people who are in love with each other. But either one or both parties don’t know the other is a spy. And that dramatic irony adds a level of excitement to the romance that a basic romance just can’t compete with. So that’s great.
But we’ve seeeeeeen it already. We’ve seen it so many damn times. So what’s the difference with your spy romance? What makes yours a “must see movie?”
The thing with Red Sparrow is they have the answer. And yet they ignored it. There’s a throwaway line late in the script where they’re telling Nash that Dom is a honeypot, and how she’s tricked him. And he’s like, “No, she loves me. I saw it in her eyes.” And the guy’s like, “Do you know what kind of schooling they put these girls through? Their job is to make it seem like they love you.”
THAT. MY FRIENDS. IS YOUR MOVIE.
The implication here is that they make these spies irresistible, from how they interact with you, to giving you the most amazing sexual experiences you’ve ever had x1000. We’ve never seen these schools in this kind of movie before. We needed to see that. Teaching this girl, at a young age, things as complicated as every sexual move to make a man obsessed with you.
And not just because sex sells but so we understand who this character is when she meets Nash. We’ve seen her grow up in this horrid lifeless awful school designed to turn her into a sexual object, designed to turn her into someone with zero feelings, to never get attached to the mark.
Instead, we get a throwaway line and a halfway decent story about a best friend whose double-spy status might get revealed.
I’m sorry but I’ve seen that movie before. Dozens of times. Not enough writers ask themselves that question: WHAT AM I GOING TO DO THAT’S DIFFERENT?
I’m not saying you have to come up with the most amazing perfect story answer. But just by ASKING the question, you up the chances significantly that you’re going to write something that feels different from what others have written in the past.
Another thing I couldn’t stop thinking during this script was “faster, faster, faster.” The story needed to move faster. After the opening scene, we don’t see Dom again until page 28. And after that, we don’t see Dom and Nash meet til the midpoint. In my head, I’m thinking, “Come on, we can hit those plot points so much sooner.”
But then I remembered that sometimes, it isn’t that the plot points aren’t being hit fast enough. It’s that the story in between the plot points isn’t interesting enough. That can fuck with you when you’re writing, especially when you’re starting out. Because you need to figure out which is the real problem. Do I need to write faster? Or do I need to write better?
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t the slow-to-come plot points. It was the plot itself. Once you recognize that, you can start pinpointing what’s making the story weak.
Once I switched over from “faster” to “better,” I noticed where the script went wrong. I mean the stakes alone are a huge issue. The stakes here are, basically, Korch not getting caught as a double spy. That’s a nice subplot. But it shouldn’t be the main set of stakes driving a movie set in the Cold War involving the U.S. and Russia. The threat of nuclear fucking war needs to be part of the stakes. I liked Korch. But I don’t think Korch is as big of a deal as New York getting blown up.
Now, obviously, this is not a final draft. So I’m not criticizing this project definitively. In fact, I’m betting they’ve had these exact same conversations. But I think it’s a good screenwriting lesson to keep in mind for sure.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Is your script moving along fast enough? And if it isn’t, is it because your major plot points are taking too long to arrive or because your story itself needs to be more compelling?