Premise: (from the actual Black List) A nerdy high schooler, who fancies himself an amateur photographer, attempts to create a “Swimsuit Issue” featuring his high school classmates in hopes of raising enough money to go to summer camp.
About: The Swimsuit Issue finished number 3 with 35 votes on this year’s Black List.
Writer: Randall Green
Details: 105 pages
You may not realize it, but I can hear your brain right now.
I’m inside of your head. I saw an ad on Craig’s List for it recently and figured I’d sublet. The nice thing about being inside someone’s head is that you can hear things not even they can. You wanna know what I hear your brain saying while your mouth tells everyone that the Black List is bullshit? That it’s rigged and the quality of the scripts suck and no one cares about it any more? Your brain’s whispering, “I wish my script made the Black List.” Because like it or not, it’s an opportunity to be celebrated for your writing. And you don’t get many of those as a screenwriter.
So today, I’m going to fill you in on a few reasons why The Swimsuit Issue made the Black List (high up, for that matter) and your script didn’t. Hopefully, this will gear you up for next year’s attempt at the list. But first, let’s break down the plot.
Our hero, 15 year old aspiring photographer Zach Rosen, is sort of like a combination of Max Fischer (Rushmore), Napoleon Dynamite, and Ferris Bueller. He’s a high school kid who’s a little bit different. Well, okay, a lot a bit different. When we meet him, he’s been called into the principal’s office for hawking pictures of his half-naked plus-sized housekeeper, Esmerelda.
Zach doesn’t see this as inappropriate, however. He sees these photographs as art. And since he’s just moved into a new town and a new school, art is all he’s got. Well, except for his gorgeous girlfriend, Jenna, who he sees once a year at summer camp.
Unfortunately, Zach’s about to get some bad news. Because his father recently lost his job and his mom split up with him, the family (which includes Zach’s older drug-addict brother, Charlie), doesn’t have the cash to send Zach to a fancy camp this year. Which means Zach can’t see Jenna. Which means Zach needs to think of something fast.
So he comes up with the nifty idea to do a swimsuit issue of the hottest guys and girls at school and sell it. But he needs to make friends first. Luckily, he crosses paths with the “Greta Gerwig-like” Dana, a cool chick who seems to have it all going on – she’s confident, smart, cute, funny. Except Dana kind of gave one of the teachers a handjob in the cafeteria and he got fired. So everybody hates her.
Still, Zach and Dana team up, recruiting the hottest boys and girls they can find, culminating in a wild party at Zach’s place where he gets the photos. During this time, unfortunately, Zach’s camp girlfriend breaks up with him. His father goes on a drunken bender. His brother steals Dana right from under his nose. And everything about Zach’s future is destroyed.
Will Zach recover? Will he mend his relationship with his deadbeat brother and retain a friendship with Dana and Jenna? Or will he become just like the other members of his family and give up on life?
Okay, so I promised you answers on why this made the Black List and your script didn’t. So let’s not waste any time. Get your pens out my scribble-hungry brethren.
1) It’s a comedy that cares just as much about drama as comedy – The Black List rarely celebrates out-and-out broad humor. Agents, producers, and development folks like comedy writers who can explore drama in their comedies, and then find the comedy within that drama. There’s a whole lot of intense family shit going on in The Swimsuit Issue. It’s not just shit jokes and characters bumping into things.
2) It’s edgier than your typical comedy – The Black List likes when you go beyond the safe predictable boundaries of a genre, especially comedy. Zach’s doing lines of cocaine by the end of this script. We’ve got inappropriate student-teacher relations. In other words, the worst thing that happens in this screenplay isn’t a guy losing his girlfriend.
3) Deals with real complex relationships – The most forgettable comedies are ones that put zero effort into exploring relationships on any honest level. As this script goes on, we realize that Zach and Charlie’s relationship is really complicated. He’s an addict whose expensive trips to rehab have had a direct impact on Zach’s life. These two need to hash it out by the end of the story or we won’t be satisfied.
4) Unexpected dialogue choices – People often ask how I can spot a “pro” script over an “amateur” one. One of the easiest ways is dialogue choice. When a character says something, does the other character respond with a generic line or a line we’ve seen a million times before? Or is the response unique and unexpected? Most of the lines in The Swimsuit Issue are unique and unexpected. For example, later in the script, Zach’s mom says to him, “I want you to visit your brother this afternoon.” Now go ahead and write down how you’d have Zach respond to this. I’ll wait. Hopefully you didn’t write something like, “No.” Or, “Not gonna happen.” Okay, ready? Here’s his response, which is quite funny: “That’s eight or more unlikely steps from happening.” Even if you don’t like this line, note that it’s not a BORING line. It’s not an EXPECTED line. That’s the point.
Now the other day when I was breaking down this logline along with the rest of the Black List, you may remember me saying that I was worried the script didn’t have any stakes. “A kid makes a swimsuit issue for his school so he can go to camp” doesn’t sound like a very important journey.
But as we’ve discussed before on the site, stakes don’t have to mean the world is about to blow up. Stakes are relative to the situation. If a character wants something badly enough, then to him (and us), the stakes will be high. It turns out the missing ingredient in the logline was that the love of his life was at camp. And this is the only time during the year he’ll get to see her.
That tiny detail added the stakes to all of a sudden make this story worth telling. However, don’t wait until someone reads your script to figure that out. Include it in the logline. Because stakes are one of the key ingredients in getting someone to want to read a script. The new logline for The Swimsuit Issue, then, would be something like: An eccentric teenager attempts to create a “Swimsuit Issue” featuring his high school classmates in hopes of raising money to go to summer camp, his lone opportunity to see the love of his life.” That’s a bit rough but you get the point. Include those stakes!
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This script had a goal (create the Swimsuit Issue to raise the money to go to camp). It had stakes, which we just pointed out. But it didn’t have urgency. I never felt like Zach was under any pressure to hurry up, and that definitely affected the story. The simple feeling that “time is running out” is an easy way to add intensity to your story, and is therefore recommended.
What I learned 2: I’ve found that 105 pages is the PERFECT length for a comedy script. If you’re writing a comedy, this is a great script length to aim for.