Premise: The unbelievable fallout after Larry Hillblom, a self-made billionaire, died in a plane crash, and it was revealed he’d used numerous Third World Asian countries as his own personal pedophilia playground.
About: This script finished on the low end of last year’s Black List. You could say this is Matt Portenoy’s breakthrough screenplay, although he did pen a segment on the much maligned Farrelly Brothers movie, Movie 43.
Writer: Matt Portenoy
Details: 125 pages
As you guys know, I don’t beep for biopics. I find the majority of them tedious, predictable, and lame. I think they’re the genre that requires the LEAST amount of skill to pull off, since you don’t even need to structure them. The outline’s already typed up for you on Wikipedia. All you have to do is add dialogue. This accounts for 90% of the biopics I read.
There are a few exceptions. The first is when the writer tries something different. Instead of using internet sites to plot their story, they take a unique point of view, or do something interesting with the timeline, or play around with convention – anything so that the result is unpredictable. Steve Jobs, The Fighter, The Social Network. Even a movie like Julia and Julia. All of these qualify.
The next exception is if the writer is actually a good writer and not hacking their way through a glorified obituary. Again, you don’t need to be a great screenwriter to write a biopic because structure doesn’t matter as much. You can literally write a bunch of “greatest hits” scenes and if someone really wants to make a movie about that person, they might buy your script.
But when a good writer comes in and approaches the biopic in the same way that one approaches a spec script – by trying to tell an amazing story – you end up with some good material. The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game, Braveheart are all examples of this.
Our final category is the truly fucked up people who have had really bizarre lives. These are hard to screw up because the curiosity-factor is so high. If you want to know what these movies are, check Leonardo DiCaprio’s IMDB page. They’re exclusively what he seeks out. Catch Me if You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator. But it also includes movies like Man on The Moon, A Beautiful Mind, and the eternally in development hell but sure to arrive at some point, Freddy Mercury story.
Larry Hillblom lands squarely in that final category. If you want to learn about someone who lived a weird life, google this dude. And that leads us to a very important screenwriting lesson for biopic writers – find the weird lives that nobody knows about. The competition is too fierce for the super famous names. People have heard of Howard Hughes. People have heard of Andy Kaufman. But until I picked up today’s script, I’d never heard of Larry Hillblom.
Our story starts with Larry, CEO and creator of one of the largest shipping companies in the world, DHL, opening up a refrigerator that is filled top to bottom with ONLY GRAPEFRUITS. Newsflash. Larry is a fucking weirdo.
Like a lot of weird things this man does, he’s been on a month long “only eat grapefruits” diet. If Larry’s doing this for his health, he probably shouldn’t have pulled his best Buddy Holly impression and hopped on a plane that, 30 minutes later, would crash and kill him. I hear death is unhealthy for your heart.
Cut to Nick Waechter and Pete Donnici, the now acting presidents of DHL. While Donnici is more of a suit, Waechter was Larry’s best friend. So even though he just got a big promotion, he’s hurting.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world in a small Asian country called Saipan where Larry spent the bulk of his time, lawyer David Lujan gets a visit from a local prostitute who claims that her son was fathered by Larry. She wants some of that sweet billion dollar pie.
And thus begins one of the strangest estate battles in history. Waechter and Donnici fly to Saipan, where they learn that Larry essentially owned the entire island (including a theme park that Larry built). And he used that power, along with his millions, to seek out 14-15 year old local virgins to have sex with.
Attempting to protect a billion dollar business from both losing its capital AND having its name tarnished, Waechter and Donnici do everything in their power to eradicate this potential heir from taking their fortune. This includes destroying all DNA from Larry and even bribing the country’s president to change the laws so that ridiculous quotas must be met to prove someone’s your child.
The problem is, more and more of Larry’s secretly fathered children keep showing up, meaning more and more bugs need to be squashed. At a certain point, not even DHL’s millions can save them, resulting in one hell of a settlement for a group of women who were, up until that point, living on a few dollars a day.
I always tell you guys to find a new angle. Give us something the average person wouldn’t have thought of. You’re a writer. That’s your job.
So if I told you to write a biopic about Larry Hillblom, what would you do? What Portenoy did was he said, “Fuck the biopic. What if we focused on what happened AFTER the “bio” part instead?”
Once he had that angle, he didn’t need to do anything fancy. He picked a well-known story template – underdog takes on the establishment – added a slice of Erin Brokovich to it, where we have this tiny island lawyer going up against a big corporation (Scriptshadow Tip: Everyone loves underdogs!), and then he just told his story.
And like any good story, it has twists and turns, high stakes (if this case gets out, DHL is forever linked to pedophilia), an evil villain who will do anything to prevent getting beaten. It really delivers (heh heh).
And it’s basic stuff guys. At the heart of any good story is someone who wants something badly, and somebody else (or something else) who’s trying to prevent them from getting it. If both of those characters are compelling, and your plot keeps evolving in unpredictable ways, you’ll write a strong script.
There were a couple of weaknesses though. By not spending any time with Larry, we didn’t get to see what was, supposedly, a batshit crazy dude. This guy owned a Delorean. He was a hypochondriac (supposedly why he only had sex with virgins). He was in a previous plane crash which led to extensive reconstructive surgery. He hated taxes and spent millions to make sure he’d only give the government the bare minimum. He was an adrenaline junky. He was the only billionaire in the world who cut coupons.
I don’t know if you do it through flashbacks but it seems like the script is missing out by not seeing more of this guy. When you’ve got a talking turtle, you don’t hide him in the back room.
Another thing I want to discuss is the “half-commit.” This is when writers don’t commit to something all the way.
Here, Portenoy gives our hero, David, a temper. The problem is, it reeks of “I’m doing this to make the character more interesting, even though it has nothing to do with the rest of the story.”
Character traits only work if they play into the story somehow. For example, if David punches the lead counsel and it ends up costing them a key witness, then the temper flaw ends up mattering. But if it’s just something that randomly comes up once in awhile, you’ve probably only added it because screenwriting books told you to do so.
If you’re not going to commit to something all the way, it’s better to get rid of it completely.
Beyond these problems, I really Liked Unt. Larry Hillblom. It’s a good story about a weird guy that gets you thinking about all sorts of stuff these big corporations are hiding. Check it out if you’ve got the time.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: ORGANIC EXPOSITION – This is the only type of exposition you should be writing. It refers to hiding exposition inside moments where it’s organic that the information would be revealed. For example, when exposition about DHL needs to be given, Portenoy doesn’t place Donnici and Waechter in a room and have the two give an impromptu breakdown of the company. “They can’t mess with us. We started this company in 1980 and built it to 20,000 employees.” “Not to mention we were around before Fed Ex.” “Last year alone we brought in a half a billion in revenue.” That’s inorganic. Instead, Portenoy hides this information inside a eulogy, where it would make sense that someone would talk about the company that Larry started: “By founding DHL, before Fed-Ex, before AOL, before “Hands Across America” or “We Are The World,” Larry Hillblom shrunk the earth…” Waechter would go on to tell us key information about Larry in the eulogy as well. This is what organic exposition looks like.