Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: The discarded heir to a billion dollar fortune decides to kill all his family members to inherit the money.
About: Screenwriter Ford is a new kid on the block, but that didn’t stop him from landing at number FIVE on the 2014 Black List. He’s repped at UTA and managed by Black Box Management. He also had a short film play at Sundance in 2010 called Patrol.
Writer: John Patton Ford
Details: 126 pages
This is quite the screenplay. I can’t remember the last time I finished a script so… angry.
Not because the script is bad. Oh no, this is not Moonfall 2: Moon Tornadoes. Far from it. This script purposefully orchestrates your anger. To that end, it’s a success. But man, it’s not an easy success to embrace. Never has a villain seemed so casual yet ignited feelings of such rage in me.
Before you read it though (for those who have the Black List scripts, you have this), note that it’s not an easy script to get through. You’re not going to find me supporting its excessive 127 page girth. But I can promise you this. This parallel world version of Wolf of Wall Street is crafted well enough to leave you feeling rewarded when you finish. Even if that reward is a kick to the groin.
When we meet Becket Rothchild, he’s on Death Row. In fact, he only has hours to live. So he’s giving his “confession” to a priest, a confession that doubles as our narration of the story. Becket explains that 30 years ago, his mother, a teenager at the time and member of the Rothchild’s, one of the richest families in the world, got pregnant.
Her father told her that she could either abort the baby or leave the family and never come back. She decides to leave, which led to Becket’s birth, and the two hustled through life with no money at all until his mother died of cancer, a death that could have been prevented with some financial help from the family. But even then, her father turned his back on her.
This is what led to Becket’s hatred of his family, and kickstarted his desire to kill each and every one of them. Truth be told, revenge wasn’t the only reason Becket became a killer. Becket liked the idea of having all that money. As he tells us at the beginning of his narration, that old saying that money doesn’t buy happiness is bullshit.
There are nine Rothchilds to kill and they include frat douches, hipsters, reality star twins, and the big tuba himself, the man who kicked his mother out. Becket’s murder weapon of choice is a bow and arrow but the Rothchild killings come in all shapes and sizes, including poison, fire, even dynamite!
As Becket gets closer to his goal, his childhood crush and now bitter enemy, Julia, wises up to his plan. She blackmails him, telling him that if he doesn’t give her 3 million dollars, she’s turning him in. As we all know, a blackmailer never stops after they get your money. They always keep coming back for more. And Julia does come back for more right when Becket’s at his lowest point. (spoiler) It turns out she has something that can set him free. However, he’ll need to give her the entire fortune to get it. Whatever will Becket do?
Before we get into the meatier aspects of the screenplay, I want to point out a “show don’t tell” moment to remind all the screenwriters out there how important it is to look for these opportunities.
Early on, Becket’s mother becomes sick with cancer. After exhausting all their options, they make one last Hail Mary pass and return to Daddy Rothchild to ask him for money. Now, I want you to think about this scene as if you were about to write it. What would you write?
You could, of course, write a scene where Becket’s mom sits down with her father and pleads for his help. The high stakes of the situation would dictate, at the very least, a decent scene. But since the directive of the scene is so simple (she asks, he says no), it’s the perfect scene to look for a “show don’t tell” alternative.
And that’s what Ford gives us. He shows Becket wheel his mother up to the mansion in a wheelchair, Becket talks into the call box, and then the gates close on the both of them. In a matter of a few lines, you’ve given us a much more powerful version of the scene (and in 1/10 the space it would’ve taken to write a dialogue scene).
I don’t know what it is but there’s something about an ACTION that really does speak louder than words in screenwriting. A huge iron gate closing on this helpless soul packs so much more punch than a series of (likely) predictable lines between daughter and father. As writers, you should always have your “show don’t tell” goggles on when writing. Always look for those opportunities.
Now, as for the script, I’m not going to pretend this was a smooth ride from start to finish. Once I realized that Becket had to kill nine people, I was like, “I have to sit around and wait for this guy to kill NINE PEOPLE!?” It’s hard enough to make one killing interesting. How is this guy going to keep our interest for nine?
Indeed, once we got into some of these middle-killings, I started getting restless. That 127 number staring at me from the top of the document wasn’t helping. But I’ll tell you when things changed for me. There’s a moment where Becket is about to kill the Televangelist Rothchild. He poisons his glass when he turns away. But when Rothchild turns back, he says, “So which poison did you use?” He then turns the tables on him and ties Becket up.
It was the first time I was legitimately surprised by what happened. Up until that point it was: Meet a Rothchild, spend a shit-ton of time with him, and FINALLY kill him. This one caught me off-guard. And it reminded me that one of the reasons you set up goals in screenplays, is to create expectations. You say to the reader, “Hey Reader – my character is going to go do this now.” The reader then relaxes and says, “Okay, let’s watch the character do this now.”
Once you lure them into that sense of security, you turn the expectation against them. That’s exactly what happened here. We figure, hey, he’s going to kill the televangelist just like he’s killed everyone else. But now the televangelist flips it around and the hunter becomes the hunted. Building expectation is a powerful tool. But it only works if you fuck with the expectation.
And yes, I get that to fuck with the expectation, you first have to lure the audience into a sense of security, which is why Ford would argue the previous Rothchild killings needed to go according to plan. But there were a few too many of them and each of them lasted a few scenes too long. We needed to get through that section quicker. I’d even argue that we don’t need 9 people. We could get away with 7.
Anyway, after that, the script was less predictable, and the increasing frequency of our serpentine villain, Julia, added another x-factor to the story. We were no longer on that predictable “get to know a Rothchild, then kill him” train. We were on busses, planes, sidewalks, bikes. Shit, we were in an Uber at one point. All of this made me less sure of where the story was going. I was kind of surprised, being so apathetic at the midpoint, how into the ending I was. And when that big bombshell hits, it’s something else. As in, it kind of makes you want to kill yourself.
“Rothchild” left me with mixed feelings but they were feelings nonetheless. I’m still thinking about it. And that’s usually a good thing.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: We’ve discussed the page number thing to death. But if I can, I’d like to recap. It’s true that page length doesn’t “really” matter. A well-written 120 page script can read like it’s 90 pages and a terribly written 90 page script can read like it’s 140 pages. Here’s why keeping the page length down helps though. It forces you to make tough choices – to cut out stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary. A lot of writers are the equivalent of motor-mouths. They like to hear themselves type. Well, as you know, it doesn’t take long for somebody to eventually tell those people to shut up. Don’t be a screenwriting motor-mouth. Choose your words carefully.
What I learned 2: A serial killer main character gives your script a 20% better chance of getting on the Black List. I’m not kidding.