Premise: Pinned behind a wall on the battlefield of Iraq, a sniper’s only communication is the enemy sniper who’s intent on making him suffer before he dies.
About: Dwain Worrell recently found success selling this script to Amazon (their first feature spec purchase). It then finished number 5 on the Black List. Worrell has an interesting story in that, hurting for a job, he moved to China to teach English. Wouldn’t you know it, that’s when he finally found success at screenwriting, and has since moved back. On the flip side, many Chinese children will never be able to read Scriptshadow because of his success.
Writer: Dwain Worrell
Details: 86 pages
I’m not a sniper fan. I thought the 2001 sniper film Enemy at the Gates was the equivalent of watching the Yule log on repeat. I thought the American Sniper screenplay was a government experiment designed to make anyone who read it fall into a deep 24 hour hibernation. And while both of those stories suffered from script issues, I couldn’t help but think that the sniper subject matter was the real problem. Snipers as side characters – as, say, a problem for our hero when he’s trying to make it across a battlefield – that’s interesting. But as the main character, as someone who sits still for a long time and who’s at a safe distance from the action? – there isn’t anything exciting about that.
At least, I thought there wasn’t before I read “The Wall.” Finally, someone has figured out a sniper-centric situation with some actual drama.
The year is 2009. The war in Iraq is over. But as we all know, a war is never really over until the invading side leaves. And the invaders, the Americans, haven’t left yet. They’re at that messy stage of having to take the country they just bombed and build it back up. Which is where we meet our hero, Locke.
Locke, a sniper, and his partner Hobbs, his “spotter,” have been sent to a recent construction zone where the U.S. has been trying to build a school. But when they get there, they find a dozen dead workers, all of whom, clearly, have been shot by a sniper. The only thing that remains of their efforts is a 16 feet wide 6 feet tall brick wall.
After waiting forever to see if the zone is still dangerous, Hobbs inexplicably gets up to go check on the deceased. Surprise surprise, he’s shot by enemy sniper fire, and goes down. Locke tries to go save him but must take cover by the wall to avoid getting shot himself.
Soonafter, Locke is contacted on his radio by a superior who wants to know his position for extraction. It doesn’t take long for Locke to detect a fake accent, and identify the voice as Iraqi. This is “Ghost,” the sniper who has him pinned down.
What follows is a psychological battle of wits, as Ghost questions Locke on everything from American slang to a previous incident where Locke’s former friend and spotter mysteriously died on Locke’s watch.
As a deadly wound slowly bleeds out, Locke has an hour at most (URGENCY – YAY!) to figure out where the sniper’s hiding, as killing him is his only chance at getting out alive.
This is a really clever spec idea. Something we talked about recently was the difference between a “script” and a “movie.” Sometimes something reads really well on the page, but it doesn’t transfer well to screen. And the knock on the Black List is that it has a lot of good scripts, but not many of those scripts are “movies.”
When you contain your story, it becomes even harder to write a movie because you’re limited to one place. Movies like lots of places, lots of action, movement, changing scenery. So something where, say, three people are locked in a room during the apocalypse, might read well, but visually it’s going to get pretty boring on the big screen.
With The Wall, even though it takes place in a single area, it’s a very cinematic single area. It’s a battlefield. And the threat of our main character being sniped at any moment gives it the same kind of intensity you would feel in your typical scene from Mission Impossible 5. Put simply, despite its small scope, this FEELS like a movie.
And Worrell mixed in a couple of clever devices to heighten that intensity. Another writer may have made Locke the lone character in this script. That’s the “first idea” version of this story. Instead, we have Hobbs, who gets taken down on the battlefield. But the clever part is, Hobbs isn’t dead. And Ghost doesn’t know he’s not dead. So while Locke is having this conversation with Ghost, Hobbs uses minimal movements to scan the area, to try to locate where Ghost is hiding. The whole movie we’re desperately hoping he locates Ghost before getting caught.
Worrell also uses a mystery box of sorts with Ghost. Ghost knows who Locke is. He knows his rank, his experience, even specific details from his life. So this whole time we’re trying to figure out who Ghost is and how he knows these things.
Finally, Worrell gives Locke an unresolved event from his past that the two characters can discuss – the death of his former spotter. What starts out as a straightforward story of a soldier dying on the battlefield turns out to be a lot more complicated. If Locke and Ghost only have surface-level things to talk about (sniping, their religious beliefs, their opinion about war), the dialogue’s going to get boring fast. We need that thread that we can keep coming back to, that the audience is going to want an answer to. That’s what the spotter thread did.
There were a few things I thought could’ve been done better though. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why Hobbs would walk out into a group of 12 dead guys who had been shot by a sniper. I’m not a soldier but something tells me that’s a really dumb move.
I wished Worrell would’ve better explained who and what a spotter was. I’m not familiar with the army so I wasn’t even aware there were spotters. This becomes very important (spoiler) later on when Ghost’s spotter comes into the mix and he’s in a different location. My understanding of spotters was so limited that I didn’t get how a spotter could not be next to his sniper.
Yes, it’s tricky to figure out how to convey details like this without getting too exposition-heavy. But that’s one of the requirements of being a writer. You’re counted on to find creative solutions to tough problems.
Finally, I wanted more from the ending (reverse spoiler). There were all these hints during the story that the enemy sniper may have been one of their own (an American sniper). I was expecting a big twist at the end, one that possibly tied into Locke being responsible for his old spotter’s death (was he still alive? was he behind this??). I guess this was based on a real story though (Ghost was a real Iraqi sniper) so Worrell wanted to stay true to that. But something about this script was begging for a last second twist, and I was a little disappointed when we didn’t get one.
Still, this was a well done job by Worrell and a really cool little screenplay. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The inner monologue versus the outer dialogue. A conversation is never a straightforward thing where the world stops while words are exchanged. Characters are usually thinking about something else when they speak, and what they’re thinking about can help inform the scene. You may be talking to your boss, for example, but thinking about your date with his daughter later. You might be at a party talking to someone you don’t like, and therefore scanning the room, looking for someone to save you. You may be talking to a teacher in a parent-teacher conference, who’s telling you that your kid isn’t paying attention in class, and all you’re thinking about is, “That’s because you’re the worst teacher in America.” In The Wall, Locke spends almost the entire conversation with Ghost looking for a way out. He’s never just having a conversation. He’s strategizing, manipulating, hunting for a clue as to Ghost’s whereabouts. That’s a huge reason why the dialogue pops here. Because the inner monologue is contrasted against it.