Premise: A female FBI agent is dragged into an undercover operation to take down one of the biggest drug tunnels in Mexico.
About: Actor/writer Taylor Sheridan has just beefed up his resume. He first made waves with the well-received Black List script, “Comancheria,” but seems to have really come-of-age with “Sicario,” which has Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve attached and Emily Blunt in line to star.
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Details: 105 pages (undated)
Alert alert! Do you have a memorable title for your screenplay?
One of the funny things that happens every once in awhile at Scriptshadow is I’ll be scrolling through my database of scripts to see what I want to review next. I see the title of a script along with the writers, then do a Google search of both to learn more about the project. Sometimes, the first result will be: “REVIEW FROM SCRIPTSHADOW.”
WHAT??? I already reviewed this? I’ll go to the review, read it, and, sure enough, find out I did read and review the script. This may sound like a humorous scenario, but it’s a terrible one if you’re the screenwriter. If someone can’t remember your script from the title, it probably means you have a forgettable title.
The script in question was one I actually reviewed quite recently, called “On Your Door Step.” It was a pretty good script. But obviously, that title doesn’t lend itself to being remembered past a few weeks. In order to be memorable, you should be more specific. Take the recent surprise hit, “John Wick.” That’s a memorable title mainly because it’s highlighting a specific name. Do you know what the original title for that script was? “Scorn.”
Talk about a boring forgettable title. We’ve been hardwired by the studios to give our scripts the most dumbed down titles possible, not realizing that the reason they’re doing this is that the more general the title is, the more demographics it can potentially appeal to. As a writer, you have a very different purpose with your title. You need to stand out. So try a few specific titles on for size with your latest screenplay and see how they fit. It may make a big difference when you enter your script into The Scriptshadow 250 Contest.
Today’s much more memorably titled screenplay, Sicario, focuses on FBI agent, Kate Macy. Kate’s been cleaning up the streets of Phoenix with her partner, Reggie, who’s been trying to get out of the friend zone with her for years. On this particular day, the two stumble into a house for a routine kidnapping only to find dozens of dead Mexican bodies hidden in the walls.
Soon after, Kate is recruited by the mysterious Matt Graves, a guy who looks more like the drunk divorced dad at the end of the Tiki Bar than the Department of Justice agent he is. Matt tells Kate he needs her for the big time, and flies her down to the Mexican border, where he shows her just how terrifying the war has gotten.
Every single Mexican cop is controlled by the cartels, so the days of waltzing into the country and throwing their American weight around are done. These days, they have to be smarter about how they attack. Immediately, Kate senses something is off. Why the hell would they want her for all of this? She specializes in kidnappings, not inter-border war games. But Matt remains tight-lipped.
Kate soon realizes how dangerous her new job is. When she meets a good-looking guy at a bar, it turns out he’s been hired by the cartel she’s watching to assassinate her. Kate’s new status has put her on some “list,” which means going back to her old job is no longer an option. She’s in it whether she wants to be or not.
Eventually, Kate learns that this entire operation is about locating and taking down the cartel’s biggest smuggling tunnel. They do that, Matt promises, and all the drugs back in Phoenix will disappear. For once, he assures her, she has an opportunity to really do something impactful. This would be all well and good if Matt was telling her the whole truth. But it turns out he’s using Kate. For what? You’ll have to read the script to find out.
The wide-release crime-drama has gone the way of the dodo bird. The older folks who used to go to the theater to watch these films would rather stay at home and see what’s on Netflix these days. So how is Sicario getting made? I’ll tell you how. Because this is a sweet-ass script – like a bowl of Captain Crunch doused in chocolate milk. And I wasn’t expecting that at all. Most of the crime-dramas I read are “already seen it all before” boring. I’ll tell you why this one wasn’t.
When I read a script – especially when I read the first ten pages – I have this subconscious filter going on, where I’m looking for anything that’s UNIQUE. It could be a line of dialogue. It could be a line of description. It could be a scene. It could be a character. Whatever. If I read 2 or 3 things that I haven’t seen before before the 10 page mark, that’s usually a good sign.
There were three such moments in the first 10 of Sicario. First, we get this line about a character’s eyes. Now I’ve read every eyes description you can possibly think of. And they’re all usually the same. This is how Sheridan describes one of his characters: “He looks young for 35, but his eyes – seems like they lived for decades before him.” I like that. I haven’t seen that before.
This is followed by the house bust scene where our agents quickly realize that over 3 dozen men have been buried in the house’s walls. I haven’t seen that in a crime-drama before. Later in that same scene, a door is rigged with explosives, killing two men in front of Kate. Afterwards, when she goes home, we get a scene of her showering, carefully pulling off the bits of flesh and bone stuck to her from the explosion. Again, have not seen a scene like that before.
So I was pretty much in immediately.
Sheridan does a number of other things well, too. First, Matt doesn’t tell Kate exactly why she’s been recruited for this mission. This leaves her, and us, in the dark, turning the pages in hopes of finding out the answer. Things would’ve probably been boring if Matt told us exactly what we needed to know right away. One of your jobs as a writer is to hold back information every once in awhile to keep things suspenseful. Never forget that.
Sheridan also does a nice job with Kate’s partner, Reggie. Matt doesn’t want Reggie here. He only comes along because Kate won’t cooperate without him. There’s then a ton of conflict whenever the three are around each other because Matt literally treats Reggie like a 3rd class citizen. He is an ant as far as Matt is concerned. This enrages Reggie, keeping lots of tension in the scenes whenever the three must interact.
Also, Sheridan doesn’t make Kate and Reggie a couple. Amateur Screenwriting Mistakes for $100, Alex? He makes them partners only, with Reggie secretly in love with Kate. Again, this creates more conflict, since we can feel Reggie’s love for Kate throughout the screenplay. As a screenwriter, one of your biggest goals is looking for areas to create conflict between your characters. Sheridan does this really well.
And he’s also a really great scene-writer. The best scenes usually come down to the writer’s use of suspense. Even if nothing I’ve mentioned so far has interested you, you need to read this script (I think it’s on scribd.com? – do a Google search) for the Border Shootout scene. This is a fucking awesome scene. In it, our team is trying to get back into the U.S. at the border, but they are 50 cars back in line. They start to realize that various cars in line are Cartel members who are about to turn them into swiss cheese. And they’re sitting ducks. What happens next is freaking awesome. That scene’s going to rock.
The only reason this script doesn’t get an “Impressive” is because Kate’s not a deep enough character. Everything happening around her is really awesome. But if you strip that away and just look at her, she’s kind of boring. This is a pitfall any writer can fall into with drama. Most of the heroes in these types of stories are reserved. The problem is, if you don’t write “reserved” just right, it can easily come across as boring. I think highlighting at least a character flaw can help this – that way you at least have the character fighting something internally. Unfortunately, I don’t think Kate had anything going on internally.
Still, this is really good writing and a worthy script to add to your reading list.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Awhile back we were talking about leading. By itself, leading helps keep the story moving. But there are ways you can turbocharge it to make it even more powerful. One of those ways is to lead towards something DANGEROUS. Let me explain. You can have a character say to Kate that tomorrow night is the going-away party for the Chief. That’s technically “leading,” because the reader now has another point in the script to get to. But it’s an almost empty lead. I mean, we know something’s coming, but it’s not that important. Check out how Sheridan uses leading. Kate goes into Mexico with the Homeland Security Team knowing that it’s going to be dangerous because the only way back is to go through border control on the highway. It’s mentioned several times that the Border Cops are going to leave a lane open for our team so they can get back into the U.S. quickly. But, of course, we know that that lane isn’t going to be open, and that something bad is going to happen to them while they wait in line. In other words, we’re being led to a dangerous situation instead of happy one. Once you make that promise to the reader that a dangerous situation is coming, I guarantee you they will stick around for it.