Genre: Biopic
Premise: The true, and at times shocking, story of how the Oxford dictionary was created.
About: This was a big project around 2001. Mel Gibson’s company bought the rights to the book it was based on. At one point, Luc Besson was tapped to direct. The script’s original writer, Todd Komarnicki, has had a bit of a spotty career, but actually just landed a huge assignment. He scripted Sully, which you may remember me opining about in my newsletter. The script was then rewritten by writer-director John Boorman, who’s done a million things, including Excalibur, Exorcist 2, and a dialogue polish on Deliverance.
Writers: Todd Komarnicki (rewrite by John Boorman) (adapted from the book by Simon Winchester)
Details: 121 pages

Pokemon-Go

Quackdackle for James Murray?

How does one make the dictionary interesting?

How does one make any inherently boring subject matter interesting.

I’ll tell you how.

Murrrrrrrr-derrrrrrrrrrr.

Like Pokemon Go or Chewbacca Mom, murder makes everything more palatable! And that’s what caught my interest with this long forgotten project. You see, unfortunately for “Madman,” it hit the streets long before the biopic craze. Hell, even before the Black List craze. And therefore this offbeat tale of how the Oxford dictionary was conceived never built enough buzz to turn the light green.

If this had been written today, however? I have no doubt it would already be in production. True, Squirtel or Bellsrpout might have played a prominent part. But who ever said making movies was easy? Quentin Tarantino almost cast a no-name female actress as one of the gang members in Reservoir Dogs because her boyfriend promised to give the production 1 million dollars. Casting Squirtel as a dictionary is a no-brainer.

It’s 1872. It’s London. It’s dirty. But most importantly, it’s a definition-less city. All this language is being bandied about by 3 million people, yet nobody has a reference for how to correctly say any of it.

James Murray wants to change that. He wants to do what Oxford has tried and failed to do for decades now – write a dictionary. A container of every single word and its definition in the English language. The reason this hasn’t been accomplished yet is because nobody knows how to accomplish it! Nobody even has a game plan for rounding all these words up.

Enter Dr. Minor. Actually, let’s back up a little. Dr. Minor was a surgeon in an American war who branded a soldier with a giant “D” on his face after that man tried to desert the army. After the war was over, Dr. Minor became convinced that the soldier was attempting to find him and kill him.

Dr. Minor escaped to London, only to find the man still stalking him (or so he believed). He finally ran into D-Man and shot him dead. Except it turned out Dr. Minor didn’t shoot the correct man. It was just some random Londoner. After going through the English court system, Dr. Minor was considered crazy-town, and sent to an asylum.

From there, we cut back and forth between Murray’s tireless quest to find and define all the words ever, and Dr. Minor, who becomes sort of the “Andy Dufresne” of his asylum, helping others learn art and accumulating a mini-library in his cell.

When Dr. Minor hears that Murray is building a dictionary from scratch, he decides to help, meticulously going through every book he owns, writing down a definition for each word, and sending them to Murray.

In the meantime, Dr. Minor must deal with the guilt he feels over leaving a woman and her children without a husband and father. And when he tries to mend that fence, eventually meeting the widow for the first time, things don’t go as planned. I suppose that’s why life cannot be defined.

Have you ever thought of how difficult it would be to create a dictionary from scratch when one had never been written before? Think about that for a minute. You don’t have the internet, remember. You don’t even have a list of the words to define yet! Where would you begin?

That question definitely pulled me in. But then reality hit. How would you DRAMATIZE that? That’s the question you must ask with any idea you come up with. How do I dramatize this? In some cases, the idea itself incites drama. In other cases, you’ll have to go looking for it. It is my belief that if you have to go looking for it, it probably isn’t a movie-worthy premise.

Drama /drämə/ (noun) – an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances.

To understand that statement better, here are two premises. Notice how one is dripping with dramatic possibility, while the other doesn’t have a dramatic bone in its body

1) When a private plane full of rich passengers crashes on a barren island, the people on board will devolve into the worst versions of themselves in order to survive.

2) A private plane escorting a soccer team to the West Coast allows its passengers to explore the power of friendship.

Do you see the difference here? How the first idea bleeds drama, meaning you can already imagine tons of scenes in your head. Whereas with the second one, you probably can’t think of a single scene. This is the kind of thing to be aware of when coming up with ideas. “Do dramatic scenes start popping up in your head after reading the premise?”

To “Madman’s” credit, it finds SOME dramatic elements. But it’s not as juicy as the title would have you believe. The big murder that takes place happens at the beginning of the movie, and then that’s it as far as murder.

Pokemon Go /ˈpōkiˌmän/ (noun) A video game by which people with little to no lives chase miniature monsters in a virtual world created by their phone.

I thought there was going to be some competition – like two dictionary groups trying to beat each other out to win the historic prize of first-ever-dictionary. And that they would’ve resorted to murder to win the competition.

The reason that would’ve worked better is that now you have something to BUILD TOWARDS. You can build towards the growing frustration, the growing tension, the impending murder. We know that things are coming to a head and we’re excited! But when you murder someone before the main story even begins, you’ve eliminated that chance to build.

We talked about this yesterday. We built towards this big rescue, but then were done with it by the midpoint. What’s left to build towards? That’s another question you want to be aware of. Am I still building towards the most powerful moment in the story? Because if the most powerful moment in your story is in the rearview mirror, there’s something wrong with your structure.

ffp_how-to-draw-chikorita--pokemon-tutorial-drawing

I’m hearing Chikorita is up for some big Hollywood roles. Why not play Dr. Minor?

“Madman” does its best to mitigate these problems by creating a strange love story between Minor and the woman whose husband he killed. And then with Murray, we see him stressing out a lot under the pressure.

But where the story really struggled was in its stakes. The script never answered the question: WHY DID THIS NEED TO BE DONE? And WHY RIGHT NOW? If they failed, what would happen? Lots of bad grammar? Time has proven that we’re going to have that problem whether there’s a dictionary or not.

I’ll give you an example of stakes from another English period piece with a somewhat similar setup: The King’s Speech. The King attempts to get rid of his stutter in order to warn the world of Hitler (just like Murray is attempting to finish this dictionary) with the difference being that HIS SPEECH MATTERED. It needed to be done. And fixing his stutter did matter RIGHT NOW because time was running out to stop Hitler.

bigstock-Mel-Gibson-at-the-Machete-Kil-58678325

Melgeebobo is supposedly one of the hardest Pokemon to find.

As far as I can tell, finishing this dictionary is more of a prestige thing. Everyone involved just thinks it would be rad to achieve it. That’s fine. But that’s not movie stakes.

Despite this, “Madman” moves along with just enough strangeness to keep you curious. Dr. Minor, for example, was convinced that the man chasing him could raise spirits from Hell to find him. And who would’ve thought he’d bag the woman whose husband he killed?? I mean I’ve seen some strange attempts to get a woman’s attention before, but never one quite like that.

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

What I learned: If your script covers a long period of time, and therefore doesn’t have a lot of urgency, a nice trick is to add a cross-cutting storyline that will help move through time effortlessly. We saw this with The Martian. By cutting back to earth, we could come back to Matt Damon 3 months later and the audience wouldn’t blink. That same 3-month jump becomes a lot more prominent if we’re with Matty the whole time. We do that here too. One of the ways they disguise the years it takes to write this dictionary is by cutting back and forth between Minor and Murray. Each time we cut, we do so 3-6 months ahead. So if masking a huge swath of time is a problem, consider a second narrative you can jump back and forth from.

What I learned 2: Potentially mundane subject matter is the perfect subject matter to add weirdness to because it’s unexpected. For instance, if I said I’m writing a movie about the ice cream truck business, you’d be like, “Wonderful. Let me know how it goes.” But if I said I was writing about a war between two ice cream truck drivers fighting over the same turf (a real project that just got picked up), that combination of mundane and weird would intrigue you.

  • Erica

    Oh this pokemon thing just won’t go away…

    • romer6

      But it has just arrived!

    • Daivon Stuckey

      Did you miss the 90s?

      • Erica

        I was an 80’s kid, for me it was all about the 90’s hair bands, Poison Rule! Never got into pokemon

        • Daivon Stuckey

          Well, Pokemon has been the most recognized, and lucrative video game franchise for a long time!

          • Erica

            There fixed it! (posting keeps screwing up here)

        • Dan B

          Do you consider Poison a 90’s band? I always considered it 80’s given I’m a 90’s kid with displaced 80’s favorites.

          • Erica

            Well, they can be a hair band or a glam band really, but they were in the 80’s and 90’s

      • Lucid Walk

        I do

  • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

    I know GSU is the mantra of this site, but I was watching Everybody Wants Some last night and thinking about how nice it was to not have really ANY GSU in that movie. I get it that Linklater is in a zone of his own, and can get away with shit that mere mortals couldn’t pull off, but yeah: just like Dazed and Confused, the journey is the point of the story, and thank christ Linklater didn’t feel obligated to shoe-horn in a murder to give it GSU.

    • London_Gent

      Agree. I just watched Palo Alto – similarly a movie with zero GSU – and while I feel I have seen a variation of that movie a number of times, it was still an enjoyable watch.

    • Kirk Diggler

      The movie took a while to get going and was a little repetitive with its beats, yet it finished strong and I ended up liking it. My one bit of advice would have been more Zoey Deutch. That girl’s gonna be a star.

      • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

        It suffers in comparison with Dazed and Confused, which is so authentic it truly feels like high school. EWS was made by much older man, and it shows in its lack of verisimilitude–it’s more of a fond memory than an immediate experience.

  • lonestarr357

    A script about the creation of the dictionary. I hope you don’t mind if I extend my deepest contrafibularities.

    • garrett_h

      What? One sec, lemme grab my dictionary…

      OH, I see what you did there!

    • brenkilco

      Which actually raises a relevant point. People in the 1880s didn’t really suffer the pericombobulation of being without a dictionary. Dr. Johnson’s had been in use for 150 years and Noah Webster’s for nearly eighty. So this thing has even less GSU than Carson thinks.

      • Dan B

        Oxford Dictionary was the Bud Light Lime to Miller’s Chill

  • garrett_h

    By my count, this is the 2nd or 3rd script that has been criticized considerably in the last week or so, yet still given a WTR. Is Carson going soft in his old age?

    • klmn

      I think it has to do with his move into producing. There are a lot of scripts that don’t read the best but could still be developed into successful movies.

      Credit Lawrence Grey & Co. for Carson’s continuing education.

      • Dan B

        Could be… or it could just be the zone he is in when reading and writing. He may look at this, and it could be a very well written script – just a little screwy, and he wants to comment on that. But still really well written and an interesting story. Enough to warrant a WTR.

        Honestly, great concept can help boost that WTR as well. I read the USA of Fuckin America script, and besides some mild amusement it’s really not that funny. It’s like a long funny or die sketch, but it is a great idea.

  • ripleyy

    And yet, the mundane things usually DO have the weirdest backstories as well has having a degree of murder involved. Take the lamp for example… That’s a backstory I won’t repeat, or the handbag. Wow, that one is the weirdest of the bunch. Or the creation of the first bicycle. You guys won’t look at wheels the same way ever again.

    • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

      If you’ve ever eaten a Zagnut bar you have blood on your hands.

  • Lucid Walk

    People can play video games or write scripts, and still have a life, you know.

  • Levres de Sang

    Some great dramatic / structural advice in this review. Whereas yesterday Carson discovered the inherent dangers of the “too good to be true” idea; today’s seems pretty much the opposite. Polarities which further suggest we test-drive a whole range of ideas before committing to just one or two of them.

    My other takeaway: evaluate the potential for drama within each idea. Of course, this sounds like something we should do anyway, yet so easy to get carried away in the first instance.

    • scrimshaw

      Two thumbs up

    • garrett_h

      “My other takeaway: evaluate the potential for drama within each idea.”

      I almost posted something similar. This is so important. Especially with adaptations.

      A lot of times we’ll put our specs to the test, but no one ever mentions adaptations. Some novels are amazing novels. Some real people are amazing people. But they wouldn’t make a good, dramatic movie.

      The whole “Biopic Craze” is taking over now. I’ve read quite a few with little-to-no drama. Sure, this person you’re writing about may have been fascinating, but what about their life story makes me want to see it dramatized on the big screen?

  • CJ

    I haven’t read the article yet, but your pictures were hilarious this time. Melgeebobo’s “Epithet Attack” is brutal.

  • Daivon Stuckey

    Not only does Carson not understand Pokemon, I don’t think he explains drama very well either!

  • Daivon Stuckey

    It’s so funny to me the people who try to say people who play this game have “no life”. Mobile games are played by freaking everybody because they take almost no time at all out of your day, especially this one where you can just pop on it for a couple minutes no matter where you are.

  • Mayhem Jones

    OT: (Or maybe not?) Deadline says potential live-action Pokemon Go movie in the works! MAN I’d love to get that call!!

    Agent: “MAYHEM!! Pokemon’s back! It’s a thing!! Write a movie about that thing!”
    Me: “YES!!! I’ll put everyone in space with way too much dialogue!!”
    Agent: “What? Wait–No!”
    Me: “Descriptions FILLED with un-filmable pop culture references!!”
    Agent: “We’ve talked about this–NO!!”
    Me: “I’ll have it in a week!!”
    ::click::
    Me: “HELLO????”

    Haha no but in all seriousness, the article said Max Landis has always been onboard to write “a” Pokemon script. MAX LANDIS HAS THE BEST LIFE EVER!!!!

    • klmn

      And now Pokemon players are wandering into the streets while watching their phones. The new zombies.

  • ScriptChick

    OT: In other news, I think a certain ferret lover will appreciate this news story:

    http://www.theverge.com/2016/7/12/12161792/ferret-candy-vaccine-drones-montana

    • smishsmosh22

      haha. so many people are sending me this story, too funny :)

  • Poe_Serling

    A bit late to the party…

    Just read a few interviews featuring today’s screenwriter. He seems to be a
    down-to-earth guy.

    Besides penning the upcoming Sully pic, he’s also produced a few projects.
    The most notable being:

    Elf

    By far, my favorite Will Ferrell film… and quite an enjoyable holiday film to
    boot.

    • Dan B

      It’s in my Holiday Rotation along with Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, Die Hard, and Gremlins. Probably about to add The Night Before as well.

  • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

    Wow, this story sounds a-mazing. I’d pay to go see it.

  • Bifferspice

    “Have you ever thought of how difficult it would be to create a
    dictionary from scratch when one had never been written before? Think
    about that for a minute. You don’t have the internet, remember. You
    don’t even have a list of the words to define yet! Where would you
    begin?”

  • Bifferspice

  • Malibo Jackk

    OT:
    “This is an amazing script. From the opening shot, the first line, the
    first paragraph, I knew this was top notch writing. On page 4, I
    literally – and I mean this – yelled “This is effin’ awesome!” out
    loud. I may not have used that exact euphemism. The thing is, this
    script is. It is awesome. Technically, it is beautifully written –
    clear, concise action descriptions, evocative character descriptions,
    dialogue that is naturalistic, utterly believable – but that’s not what
    elevates this one above the others. It’s the turns in the plot, the
    complexity to the characters, and how those two play off each other so
    well.”
    — Reader comment from the 2016 Nichol Fellowship Screenplay Competition.
    Writer unknown.

    Yeah, I’m polishing my page 4s.

    • klmn

      Not mine. Nothing outstanding on my p4.

  • leitskev killed scriptshadow

    Only 39 comments? leitskev’s rude and false accusations a couple weeks ago seems to have certainly pissed off more than Marija and Scott. Comments have been on a steady decline.

    Though picking lame scripts to review doesn’t help. Scriptshadow’s on emergency life support. 2-3 months of life, tops.

    • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

      This is fun place to commiserate with fellow scribes trying to write and get noticed. It’s more fun interacting with people than it is breaking down scripts. People come and go, that’s just the nature of the spec. writing business.

      Hopefully Carson and this site will keep going. It’s fun to share life together.

    • Nick Morris

      Well, that would be a shame. There is no other resource/platform/community for amateur screenwriters out there like Scriptshadow.

      But I don’t think it’s dying or anyone’s responsible for killing it or anything dramatic like that. This article was posted kind of late in the day. Plus, it’s summer time. People are busy. AOWs still typically get hundreds of comments.

  • 411

    The Saturday after laser sloth

  • yonylaton