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Michael Owens

WandaVision – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

You may have heard that Marvel Studios’ takeover of Hollywood has official entered a new phase. They’ve now extended their ultra-successful franchise of interconnected films into the television world, and WandaVision made that leap in the most literal way. One part love letter to television comedies, one part character drama, and one part superhero movie, WandaVision imagines what domestic life could be for one of comic’s unlikeliest superhero couples, a powerful sorceress (Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch) and her android husband (Paul Bettany’s The Vision). The pilot episode starts off in an I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke-inspired world, complete with a classic sitcom plot and even an off-kilter neighbor (Kathryn Hahn’s pitch perfect Agnes). But this being Marvel, nothing is as it seems, and despite the script’s spot-on homage, showrunner/writer Jac Schaeffer imbues just enough off-kilter creepiness to add to the mystery of why these superheroes…

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The Father – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Many films have explored the drama and tragedy of diseases like dementia, but none have done so as effectively as The Father. Recipient of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, The Father was written by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s play Le Père (which Hampton had previously translated into English from the original French). Zeller also directed the film. The Father follows Anthony (played by Anthony Hopkins in an Academy Award–winning turn) as he tries to adjust to life with dementia, and his oft-frustrated daughter Anne (Olivia Colman… mostly) who has been forced to deal with her father’s worsening condition and occasional belligerent outbursts. What sets the film apart from others in the genre, though, is the film’s inventive structure. Instead of a straightforward melodrama, the film behaves almost like a thriller at times, placing the viewer in Anthony’s perspective. Scenes and dialogue are repeated, characters are…

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Promising Young Woman – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Oh, where to start? Well, the opening description in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s screenplay for Promising Young Woman is so great that I might as well quote it verbatim: A super-depressing dancefloor on a Thursday night. 2-for-1 shots and a sticky floor. The kind of last-resort place people end up after work having accidentally nailed ten “just one” drinks. A bored DJ plays the DROELOE remix of “Boys” by Charlie XCX, while the thin and kind of tragic crowd dances. We linger on the men dancing in particular, their bodies, the sweat running down their backs as they grind and thrust. The slow-mo, the lascivious pan-up, the sort of erotic gaze normally reserved for oiled-up music-video hotties. Except we’re looking at regular dudes in chinos with absolutely no dancing ability. Wanna know how to open a script? You could do worse than that. I could dissect all the ways this is perfection—the…

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on August Wilson’s play, follows the titular blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, specifically trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), over the course of a single afternoon as they record her album. Writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted the screenplay, and director George C. Wolfe mostly stuck to Wilson’s work, the most notable changes being an abridged runtime (the original play clocked in at two-and-a-half hours versus the film’s brisk 94-minute runtime) and a thematic gut punch of an ending appended to the story. That new ending (the last shot in the film) accomplishes what every great adaptation does: While it doesn’t appear in the original, it is expands on the play’s themes in a way that feels inevitable and inextricably linked to the narrative. The film and play touch on many themes including racism, violence, religion, and masculinity, most notably by exploring the exploitation…

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Ted Lasso – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

If you’ve been on Twitter the last few months, you’ve probably heard of Apple TV+’s new sitcom Ted Lasso. It seems almost everyone who’s seen the show has fallen in love. Written by Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence and developed by Sudeikis, Lawrence, Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt, the pilot follows American football coach Ted Lasso (Sudeikis) as he takes a new job as the head coach for the London football club AFC Richmond. That is, the other football. Soccer. A sport Ted has absolutely no experience in or knowledge of. The show becomes a fish-out-of-water comedy as Ted tries to make sense of the rules of British football and his new life in London. He also clashes with the club’s owner, Rebecca Welton (an excellent Hannah Waddingham, whom you might remember ringing the shame bell in Game of Thrones), who has ulterior motives. You see—SPOILERS—she’s a recent divorcée who…

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Dead to Me – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

In recent years, the lines between comedy and drama have become increasingly blurred, at least in the television world. It’s not uncommon to see hourlong series that more closely resemble comedies and half-hour shows that are for all intents and purposes dramas. This current trend was kickstarted almost fifteen years ago with shows like Weeds and Desperate Housewives that, while being ostensibly comedies, often leaned more heavily toward the drama side of the coin. Demand for this type of series has only increased, and dramedy has become a surprising enduring and successful genre for female-led series. Just look at last year’s Emmy nominations — Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Russian Doll each straddles that line and all were met with critical acclaim. Also add Dead to Me to that list. The series, created by Liz Feldman, is a (dark) comedy about grief. Two women meet in a therapy group for…

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The Devil Wears Prada – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Should we do a comedy this month? Yeah… let’s do a comedy this month. Released almost 15 years ago, The Devil Wears Prada was written by Aline Brosh McKenna and adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s novel. (We previously talked about McKenna’s work with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.) Upon its release, the movie was met with critical acclaim and even scored Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, as well as another nomination for Best Costume Design (natch). Since then, it’s become a staple of cable television and has even gotten a second life with Twitter reaction gifs. One of the things that makes The Devil Wears Prada a timeless movie is its specificity. Each character feels unique and lived-in, and they each talk in their own rhythms and languages. This is one script where each character has a clear and distinct voice. You could take almost any line out of context and…

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Parasite – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The most basic story for any movie goes like this: A protagonist faces obstacles and conflict while trying to achieve a specific goal. Of course, that’s a very reductive take on narrative storytelling, but that is the skeleton most movies are built on. However, the best movies are about more than just plot; with themes and metaphors, filmmakers hold a mirror to society and use their movies as a commentary on today’s world. One of the best directors doing that today is Bong Joon-ho. Bong has made a name for himself, in his native South Korea and throughout the entire world, with strongly metaphorical satires. The genres vary greatly—the sci-fi/horror/comedy The Host, the sci-fi/action Snowpiercer, the (very) darkly comedic Barking Dogs Never Bite—but each offers some view on modern life and society in general. But the one that has gotten the most recognition (perhaps you’ve heard of its Cannes and Oscar wins?) is Parasite….

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Stranger Things – Bible

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

For this column, we typically focus on produced screenplays and teleplays to give aspiring writers a sense of what the standard is for professional screenwriters. The scripts we choose typically have strong characters, poignant themes, and — it should go without saying — exceptional writing. Although a well-written screenplay is still the best calling card an aspiring writer can have, focusing solely on the script doesn’t fully reflect the reality of the film industry. It has become increasingly common for producers, managers, and especially TV execs to request a bible or pitch deck before even reading the script, and perhaps the best example in recent years is the pitch document for Stranger Things. We’ve written about Stranger Things before, and needless to say, we’re big fans of the series (as is everyone else on the internet). This pitch deck was written before the show was picked up (the original title…

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Dolemite Is My Name – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Over the past few decades, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have carved a niche for themselves in Hollywood. Although they’ve written in other genres, they’ve found the most success writing biopics about off-kilter or notorious individuals. The tone of these movies combines sharp social commentary and tragicomedy to create some of the best examples of the genre. Their scripts Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes, and The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story have all attracted A-list talent behind and in front of the camera because of the strength of their writing, the allure of their movies’ subjects, and the relevance of their stories’ themes. Most recently in this line of biopics is Dolemite Is My Name. Set in the 1970s, the film follows comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy, in his best performance in years) as he sets out to find his…

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A Quiet Place – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

There’s no way around it: To make an effective horror or thriller movie, you need tension. Lots of it. (You also need characters the audience will care about, but that should be a given for any screenplay.) One of the classic horror set pieces is the killer stalking a potential victim, who then hides in the closet or in the bathroom or under the bed and struggles not to make a single sound. Dozens of movies probably just popped into your mind with that brief description. But what if that classic horror moment became the premise of an entire feature? A Quiet Place, written by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski and directed by Krasinski, makes that premise a reality. In the near future, Earth has been attacked by extraterrestrials and most of the world’s population has been wiped out. The catch? These aliens have ultra-sensitive hearing, so…

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Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – Screenplays

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Mel Brooks is often regarded as one of the masters of comedy, but his greatest cinematic achievements are his three collaborations with Gene Wilder. In 1974, Brooks and Wilder made two classic films that remain hilarious and have shaped modern comedy: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Parody is a difficult subgenre to perfect, but Wilder and Brooks’ one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein serves as the quintessence of the genre. Although both borrowed heavily from other sources (and spoofed them lovingly), both films work well even without the jokes. Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) is instantly relatable and sympathetic: He’s a black sheriff forced to protect a racist town. Similarly, Young Frankenstein’s “Froderick Fronkensteen” (Gene Wilder) tries to distance himself from his grandfather’s notoriety but nevertheless becomes another Frankenstein. Despite the constant jokes, both scripts focus on the main characters, and neither film would be as memorable…

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