Genre: Sports Drama
Premise: A boxer’s life spirals out of control when his wife is killed, forcing him to team up with an alcoholic low-level trainer to make it back to the top.
About: “Southpaw” was written by Sons of Anarchy creator and all around badass, Kurt Sutter. Sutter got his break in Hollywood writing for the hit FX show, The Shield. What a lot of people don’t know is that Sutter is married to Peggy Bundy herself, Katey Sagal. Southpaw is Sutter’s first foray into features. This one’s got Jake Gyllenhall in the lead role, Rachel McAdams playing the wife, and Antoine Fuqua directing. Forest Whitaker will be playing the Oscar-friendly role of “Tick.” This is an older draft, written back in 2011.  Believe it or not, the project has been around long enough where Eminem was once attached as the lead.
Writer: Kurt Sutter
Details: 122 pages – 3/9/11 Studio Draft 1 (keep in mind that a studio draft does not mean a first draft of the script itself, but rather the first draft the writer turned into the studio. A writer may have gone through many drafts of the script before turning it into the studio. Studio 1st Drafts are typically the drafts that most reflect the writer’s vision, as it’s before the writer gets studio notes).

SOUTHPAW

Today’s script is like the anti-Brian Duffield. Kurt Sutter writes thick. Like the very first paragraph in Southpaw is nine lines. Duffield’s written entire first acts in nine lines. Now a lot of you point this out when you see it in scripts and say, “Carrssssonnn! How come THEY can write so much text and we have to keep everything to three lines or less??”

Basically, when you’re already in the industry and have fans of your writing, those people are going to read your scripts regardless of if they’re chunky or lean. But if you’re not yet in the industry, the reader will have less patience with you. They have what I call “bail mentality.” They’re ready to bail at any sign of difficulty. So you have to speed things along and get to the good stuff quicker in order to keep their attention.

33 year-old Billy “The Great” Hope is the best boxer in the world. He’s Mike Tyson in his prime. He’s got Lamborghinis, mansions, pools, he even has a beautiful wife (Maureen) and daughter (Leila). Hope seemingly has the world in his hands.

Then one day, Billy’s posse runs into the posse of Miguel “Magic” Canto, the younger quicker version of himself. Trash talk turns into threats and, in an instant, guns come out on both sides. (SPOILER) Shots are fired, and when everyone does a body check, it turns out Billy’s wife loses. She dies right there in his arms.

Billy spirals into depression, ignoring bills and contracts, even spacing out in the middle of fights. Over the course of half a year, he loses everything, even his daughter, after the local child services deem Billy unstable.

Billy can handle not having money. But he can’t handle life without his daughter. So he hires a low-rent one-eyed trainer named Titus “Tick” Wills to get him to a point where he’s making money again.

Tick tells Billy if he’s going to train him, he has to play by his rules. And that means dropping this bulldozer mentality he takes into the ring and learning how to actually BOX.

To improve Billy’s speed, Tick puts Billy in the ring with 15 year olds who are twice as fast as him, like little mosquitos. Then he teaches Billy how to break down his opponent with his mind. Learn their weaknesses so he can exploit them.

Resistant at first, Billy soon becomes a Tick disciple, and gets a bout with the man who’s responsible for his wife’s death. Will he win? Will he get his daughter back? Check out Southpaw to find out.

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Because of Rocky, you can’t set up the ideal character scenario for a boxing movie anymore. Which is the down-on-his-luck underdog. No matter how you spin it, if you start your boxing movie that way, people are going to say you’re copying Rocky.

So you have to find fresh takes for your boxing hero. Sutter does this by introducing us to Billy at the top. An interesting choice, because that means he’s the opposite of an underdog. He’s a champion. And as I’ve stated here before, it’s damn hard to make the non-underdog sports story work.

But eventually, Billy hits rock bottom and BECOMES the underdog. Or does he? This was my only big issue with Southpaw. It wants to paint Billy as having no chance against Miguel “Magic” Canto. But we’ve already seen Billy pummel people into ground beef. So it’s a hard sell. And it’s not like Billy had an injury, something that made him slower. He’s the exact same guy.

Luckily, that’s not a deal breaker in these movies. With any fighting movie, it’s more about what happens OFF the mat than ON it. And we have three key relationships doing the work off the mat. We have Billy and his relationship with his daughter. Billy and his relationship with Tick. And Billy and his relationship with Angela, Billy’s daughter’s childcare worker.

I’ve said this before. Having three key relationships to explore in a script is an ideal number. If you go for more than that, you might not have enough time to properly explore each of those relationships (though it’s possible if your plot isn’t too heavy).

Southpaw’s success was always going to hinge on the relationship between Billy and Tick. And it’s pretty good. It’s not Rocky and Mick good, but there’s always an undercurrent of tension between them that keeps their interactions interesting. Plus Tick is a mysterious guy who we want to know more about (make characters mystery boxes, folks!). His backstory for how he ended up this way is one of the better backstories I’ve read in a sports movie. (good mystery payoffs earn you double points, folks!)

As for the daughter relationship, it was pretty good as well. The two didn’t have any issue to deal with. But remember, you don’t always need an issue. As long as there’s conflict SURROUNDING THE RELATIONSHIP in SOME CAPACITY, the relationship between two characters can be great. In this case, the conflict is the court – which is keeping Billy and his daughter apart.

Billy and Angela (the childcare worker) was the final relationship. And I could tell it was a tough one for Sutter. You can’t turn Angela into a romantic interest on the heels of his wife’s death. So that puts you in a spot that Hollywood movies are never comfortable with – putting an attractive male and female in a bunch of scenes together, and not exploring any romance.

But here’s how I would’ve dealt with it.  And I’m far from a Sutter-caliber writer so you’re welcome to laugh me off. It wouldn’t be the first time.  But it’s important to remember that every key character in your story should have a dilemma.  Characters should never exist solely to serve the main character’s plight, but rather their own plight.

Angela is introduced as a stickler for the rules. She has to chaperone all visits between Billy and his daughter, and she does that. But this flaw of hers (her need to follow the rules) never comes to bear. What I would’ve liked to see is for the court to play dirty. They go back on their word and keep Leila away from Billy after he’s done everything he was asked to.

By doing this, you set up an interesting dilemma with Angela, the rule-follower. She’s now presented with a choice. Break the rules so Billy can rightfully be with his daughter or continue to enforce an unfair ruling she morally disagrees with.

That’s not what happens though. Angela is more of a constant force. And constant forces aren’t evolving forces. In my opinion, a character’s status quo should be constantly challenged. The more their morals and beliefs are challenged, the more compelling they get.

Think about that for a second. When are we most pulled in by a character? It’s usually when the core of their being is being challenged.

I actually saw this exact scenario while reading a script a few weeks ago. The entire script was bad. Just really really bad. But there was this one scene – ONE SCENE – and I could only surmise that the writer wrote the thing by accident because it was so unlike anything else in the story.  In the scene, a cowardly character who always avoided conflict was walking into a store with his girlfriend and these punks started saying terrible things to her. It was the only time I was drawn in because the scenario cut to the heart of this character’s flaw. Was this guy SUCH a coward that he would allow these bullies to harass his girlfriend?  That’s good character exploration there.

Too many writers think these choices should only be explored through their main characters. That’s a mistake. You want to be exploring them through your main three or four characters. Otherwise, those characters are just serving the needs of your hero. They’re not their own people.

Southpaw is a good script. You can tell Sutter’s blood and sweat is in this one and so, even when I didn’t personally agree with something, his passion for the story carried me through. Here’s to hoping the movie is awesome.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: With any sports movie, it’s what happens OFF the field that matters most to the audience, not what happens on it. And what happens off the field can basically be measured by the quality of the three main relationships your hero’s involved in. Make those three relationships compelling and you’re going to have yourself a good script.

  • klmn

    Why is the trainer nicknamed “Tick?”

    Does he go around spreading Lyme Disease?

    Does he suck blood and swell up like a tick in a dog’s ear?

    Does he explode when someone holds a match to him?

    If this is in the movie, I might just go see it.

    • carsonreeves1

      I’m not sure they ever cover this question. But any of your options are sufficient. :)

    • Randy Williams

      There’s a character named “Tick” in the boxing Broadway play, “The Great White Hope”

      Maybe it’s a boxing term.

  • fd

    I don’t get why he needs to change his whole fighting style when he was a champ anyway. What he needs is a shrink and some time to get over his wife’s death, but he could already box at the beginning. The whole premise is faulted.

    • drifting in space

      That’s what I thought almost immediately. If the court was going to take his daughter, they would likely only require a mental health evaluation. There’s no question he has the monetary means to take care of her.

      I also hardly think the court would take her away from a grieving father if he was not hurting her and still taking care of her (with said monetary means).

      One thing I’ve noticed, both pro and amateur, is we get so set on an idea, sometimes we tend to lit logic slip a tad. I know we are creating fictional characters and situations, but the stories that make more sense logically tend to whisk me away. The ones with flawed logic have me looking for an out.

      I’m going to give this a read and see which scenario happens. I’m hoping for the second outcome.

      It also seems that Jakey G is determined to get that Oscar nom.

      • kenglo

        You have it? Could you slip it in my box? Wait…did that come out right?

        • drifting in space

          Heck ya. Your email doesn’t want to populate in my gmail. What is it again?

          • kenglo

            glover_13000 AT YAHOOOO – and thanks!! I was just thinking of writing a friggin’ story similar to this, ‘cept with MMA….guess I’m slow to the punch….

          • drifting in space

            Sent, my friend.

  • andyjaxfl

    Kurt Sutter drags out story arcs “better” than anyone. He’s also excellent at writing his character’s into some pretty nasty/tricky situations only to have them saved at the last minute by a deus ex machina.

    • UrbaneGhoul

      Or just going having a character go, “Hold up, hold up, wait!” while they have a gun to their head and the guy just lets them go.

      Sutter is an interesting case. He has one credit on IMDB before The Shield and I think that’s new to his page. I’ve read he’s written plays, was an actor, but didn’t have anything before he became a staff writer on The Shield. He was a good fit since he seems to know criminals.

      • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

        Check out the Rolling Stone interview that was a published a couple of months ago. I knew the guy was complex, but damn, that interview added even more depth. Gotta love his persistence.

  • cbatower

    I probably ought to read it before I pass judgment, but I feel like the “I’m a down-on-his-luck boxer” story is way too specific to continue to be recycled. Love, boxing, booze, wizened trainers. It’s always the same with these stories. It’s just stale and safe. You’re guaranteed your one or two Oscar-bait-y roles and a formulaic plot and it’s completely uninteresting to me.

    In my opinion, it’s passed due for someone to write a parody of the worn-out sub-genre. Unfortunately, it seems talentless, unfunny writers are the only ones writing out-and-out parodies anymore. (Not considering movies like Hot Fuzz to be out-and-out parodies, because obviously that one was amazing and worked on way more levels than simple parody.)

    • Magga

      Do the same story with a female gymnastic athlete and it suddenly feels original

      • drifting in space

        This is not a bad idea.

    • brenkilco

      Back in the seventies ace comedy writer Larry Gelbart devised a parody of an old Warner Brothers double feature called Movie Movie. The first part was a Busby Berkley type musical and the second half was a boxing picture. It was pretty clever. The aim wasnt just to satirize the genre cliches but the whole way movies were made back then. So sets are reused in both parts and the same actors play the same kind of typecast character parts in both. As I recall the boxing section was called Dynamite Hands. And it demonstrates that boxing picture cliches originated way before Rocky.

      • walker

        Movie Movie also included a fake trailer for a WW1 movie in the middle, with all the same actors.

      • filmklassik

        Love MOVIE MOVIE. Harry Hamlin (playing a dumb palooka): “How hard it is to say what there are no words for. But when a man says what’s right, what’s good, what’s real, and what’s true, then his mouth is ten feet tall.”

  • OddScience

    I finished watching all 7 seasons of The Shield on Amazon Prime recently. Definitely in my Top 5 of all time best, talk about G. S. and always a ton of Urgency. LOVE that show.

    Funny how 90% of The Shield’s cast has appeared on SOA (a lot of Deadwood’s cast, too).

    • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

      It’s been a year since I finished watching The Shield for the first time. Convinced me to give SOA the chance it deserved once and for all.

      • drifting in space

        I tried it earlier (on the advice of my mom, of all people) and couldn’t get past the cheese factor. The baby thing was just too over the top.

        • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

          Sorry it wasn’t to your liking, but I must say…your mom must be an interesting character. Are you talking about the scene when Vic jumps into the pool to save the baby? What bugged me most was the heavy metal blaring in the b.g.

          • Buddy

            It’s true that sometimes the show was “over the top”. But even the best shows have some over the top episodes/scenes/storylines, nah ?
            the shield is the anti-the wire. But I loved 2 things about this show :
            1/ since the first scene of the first episode, McKay is a falling character, even if he “wins” he’s always in a worst situation at the end. You have sometimes to wait 2 seasons to see that what was a victory is now a problem. And this is very powerful.
            2/ this is probably one of the best last episode I ever saw (with sopranos & the wire).

          • drifting in space

            I would definitely say The Shield is 100x better than SoA. More of an interesting story with terribly flawed characters.

            But, and I freely admit, I only watched one episode of SoA. I don’t have a ton if free time so I moved on to the next.

          • drifting in space

            She’s definitely something. She really likes that culture for whatever reason a middle aged single lady would (ie main characters shirtless moments).

            I’m talking about the pilot episode where they just about crammed everything they could to jerk emotions out of the audience, dying baby scene included.

  • Randy Williams

    “To improve Billy’s speed, Tick puts Billy in the ring with 15 year olds who are twice as fast as him, like little mosquitos.”

    Is this the script writer or you? That’s some good writing!

    • Charles Walters

      I immediately thought of Kramer beating up the kids in karate class.

      • drifting in space

        YES LOL!

  • http://vimeo.com/adamwparker Adam W. Parker

    Great suggestions about the court playing dirty. I haven’t even read the script and I know that’s a good idea. It’d only take 2 or 3 pages and some smoothing – blam. Not sure why they took the daughter in the first place from the review, but I trust it’s in the script. Always down for more Gyllenhall, he knows how to pick’em.

    Currently Writing: Sunshine Pack, Comedy, Coming this Month!

  • BrucePayne

    Thanks for the review, Carson!

    Can’t wait to see what this talented team puts up onscreen!

  • ThomasBrownen

    Nice review! I stumbled onto the set for this movie earlier this year and saw Jake G. Kinda cool.

  • Illimani Ferreira

    I really enjoyed the article, but I’m not sure why Carson mentions at the end that you need to have exactly 3 relationships that define and defy the protagonist’s journey. On the other hand I’m having a hard time trying to think about a sport film that doesn’t follow that rule of 3 (including my own sport comedy that I wrote a while ago, completely unaware of such pattern). My point is: why not 2 or 4 or 5? What’s the factor that conveys that pattern in this particular genre? There’s my (probably flawed) guess: archetypes. If we compare Southpaw with another sport drama where the protagonist has a completely different role, such as Million Dollar Baby, we still obtain the same elements:

    Tick (Southpaw) —> the priest (MDB) = mentor
    Billy’s daughter (Southpaw) —> Maggie (MDB) = protégé
    Angela (Southpaw) —> Scrap (MDB) = (b)romantic interest

    Agreements? Disagreements?

    • Pooh Bear

      I don’t think there are any hard/fast rules with it. I was told in film school 3 is a magic number, Hollywood likes things in 3’s. Keeps it simple. e.g. 3 acts.

      If you’ve seen the Town, the Ben Affleck movie, you have the 3 bank robberies. Any more or less would seem too bloated or too thin, if that makes sense.

      Other ways to think of archetypes for characters are protagonist, mentor, attractor, trickster and nemesis. That’s (technically 5) four not three but you can combined those archetypes into one character if you have to.

  • drifting in space

    That has nothing to do with what I said, but okay. I’m glad you got your rant out while being rude (and misguided) on a public forum.

    I’m not talking about how his money affects any of this, nor am I talking about his spending habits, his financial status, or what asinine claims about boxing being run by the mafia and how that compares to being a recording artist? Like…. where did that even come from?

    Plenty of mentally sound single fathers raise daughters on low income. They would not take her based solely on him “being on the skids.”

    And yes, MY comment is based on how it would actually be. Mental health evaluation does not mean mentally challenged, nor did I say OR imply that the character is mentally challenged because he’s a boxer. He is depressed caused by a traumatic event early in the story.

    If he is abusing pills and alcohol due to DEPRESSION CAUSED BY THE DEATH OF HIS WIFE, the court is going to conduct a mental health evaluation to determine if he is fit to take care of his daughter. Especially when she has not been to school in two weeks and he is drugged out on the floor of his bedroom.

    The story skips right over this part and basically says “You just need to make more money to get your daughter back, regardless if you are addicted to pain pills and alcohol!” This is ludicrous. Even if he went back to the ring and won millions, if he comes home and abuses alcohol and pills, no way in hell will he get his daughter back. Doesn’t work that way.

    /endrant

    • rickhester

      ‘I’m going to give this a read and see which scenario happens.’

      I’m confused. Have you actually read this script, or is this all just speculation?

      • drifting in space

        I have read to page 59. Then I had to get to work.

        • rickhester

          Ahh. Thanks.

  • ximan

    FINALLY! An article with some real meat on its bones! No offense, C, but generally speaking, I think most of the articles on the site are for beginning writers to intermediate writers. Although advanced writers (who’ve been writing for at least 10 years, and have at least 10 scripts) can always get a tip or two, I really feel articles like this one are essential tools that can be readily applied to the advanced screenwriter’s *finished* scripts.

    Why?? Because we’ve usually gotten lots of vague notes and/or opinions about those scripts, leaving a million doors open for interpretation. But this? This is something we can put to use right away and bring a fresh life to our story. It does for me at least. I can honestly take the principle of the 3 relationships and use it as a key to revise every script I’ve ever written. EVER! And that makes me really happy on the inside. Because I probably will have to do it at some point anyway.

    Thanks for posting.

    • klmn

      I read somewhere – can’t remember where – that in novels you can develop three characters. Obviously, in screenplays you have fewer words to get the job done, but it sounds like a good rule to follow.

  • drifting in space

    Just finished. Great story. I was picturing other actors than who was casted, but I think this will do well. My only problem was the length and a few cliche subplots, but other than that… Good stuff.

  • filmklassik

    “Bail mentality.”

    Great phrase. And so goddamn true.

  • Midnight Luck

    anyone have any thoughts about having the first page be a pure introduction to the main characters?

    It is what they used to do long ago with plays. All the characters were introduced so you had an idea of who was who before you began reading.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Chances are readers won’t like it.
      They’ll have to flip back to remember who these people are
      — and they won’t be that engaged to do so (if you’re not a pro).

    • drifting in space

      What was surprising to me was that the script is LONG and he still did that. They weren’t really introduced organically since I felt he assumed you read the first page and memorized that shit.

      They also felt like stereotyped characters. That’s okay, since most of the general public is going to see them and be like “yep, typically gang-bangers in Detroit.” It’s when you buck the trend of the conventional stereotypes.

      I don’t know how much you read of the script, but there were a few golden opportunities to do this, but it didn’t happen. Let me down a bit since I was impressed with how he was setting it up.

    • Ryan

      You have the script?
      If so that would be great if you can send the script to floydjr916@yahoo.com?

  • Midnight Luck

    Interesting:
    AMC pilot for Preacher, based on the DC/Vertigo comic and produced by Seth Rogen http://go.ign.com/fq7RGkH
    AMC has officially ordered a pilot episode of the Vertigo Comics adaptation Preacher. Plans are to shoot in 2015 with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directing from a script by Breaking Bad’s Sam Catlin!

    • drifting in space

      Here’s hoping it does well. AMC needs something else besides ONE show carrying them.

  • drifting in space

    I’m saving my response for the bathroom mirror. Sorry to end our private conversation.

  • fragglewriter

    This movie seems ok except for the casting. I’d wait to rent it at Redbox with a coupon code.