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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Perhaps the most difficult part of creating a hit show is not only finding a unique story that could sustain (hopefully) multiple seasons of television but also anchoring the series on a protagonist audiences will continue watching. The best television shows (and oftentimes the most successful ones) strike a balance between those two criteria.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel hits both on the head. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino of Gilmore Girls fame, the series follows a Jewish housewife, the eponymous Miriam Maisel (or Midge as everyone calls her), as her life falls apart and she begins a career as a stand-up comedian in the late 1950s. The pilot opens on her wedding as she gives her own toast. Midge effortlessly brings down the room as she recounts how she met her husband—and also offends half the mostly-Jewish attendees when she reveals the eggrolls contain shellfish. Three years later, Midge supports her husband Joel, a wannabe comedian who can get laughs only when he steals Bob Newhart’s routine, and helps him with his act from the sidelines, keeping track of which jokes get the most laughs in the most Type-A way possible. However, their marital bliss quickly evaporates when Joel reveals that he’s sleeping with his secretary. From there, Midge has a bit too much to drink, wanders onto the stand-up stage, and absolutely nails it.

Right away, the show earns points for originality. Although the show is ostensibly about the very real stand-up scene of the late 50s (Lenny Bruce is a frequent character), Midge is a fictional character, and that allows Sherman-Palladino more opportunities to explore the sexism of the era, among other things. Midge’s point-of-view is one we rarely see on television, especially in this setting. As strong as the writing is, perhaps the show’s greatest asset is Mrs. Maisel herself, Rachel Brosnahan. Brosnahan oozes charisma and sells each of Midge’s jokes. This is one of the rare depictions of stand-up where the stand-up is actually, you know, funny.

The show has already won awards for its first season (most notably the Golden Globes for best comedy series and comedy actress) and deserves all the praise it gets. As a comedy series and a character study, you couldn’t do better.

Read The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Pilot

Get Out and Call Me by Your Name – Screenplays

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

  

The Oscars took place over this past weekend, and Get Out and Call Me by Your Name walked away with the screenwriting prizes, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively. Although the scripts couldn’t be more different—the first, a horror movie with a deeply disturbing commentary on racism in America, and the second, a heartfelt tale of first love and first heartbreak—both provide valuable lessons for any writer.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out follows a young black man on a weekend trip to meet his girlfriend’s parents. Although the script begins as a humorous satire in the vein of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, things quickly escalate, and the parents’ true motives are slowly revealed in a plot reminiscent of The Stepford Wives. Peele expertly blends horror and social commentary—it’s a movie with something to say, and the message makes the horror more horrifying and vice versa. Grounding the story is main character Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya in an Oscar-nominated performance), who is an empathetic center to the story. The success of a horror movie hinges on whether the audience cares about the characters, and the awkwardness of the comedic early scenes help create an endearing protagonist (shortly after Chris meets the parents, Peele wrings a lot of laughs from awkward lines like “I would’ve voted for Obama a third term if I could’ve”). Once the insidiousness lurking underneath the parents’ smiles is revealed, the audience legitimately fears for Chris and his life, which is a hard feat in the horror genre, especially for a first-time director.

As great a horror script as Get Out, Call Me by Your Name is an equally great romantic drama, though the scripts couldn’t be more different. Adapted by James Ivory (director of such classics as A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day) from André Aciman’s novel and directed by Luca Guadagnino, Call Me by Your Name follows the 17-year-old Elio who falls for his father’s older male research assistant in Italy in the 1980s. Like Get Out, this story is firmly grounded in character, and the chemistry between the leads (played by Armie Hammer and Oscar-nominated Timothée Chalemet) leaps off the page—and the screen. Although the stakes aren’t as high, the scenes of flirtation and seduction build with the characters’ emotions always at the forefront. It’s a bittersweet story of first love, and the story’s larger moments, particularly a third-act monologue from Elio’s father (a brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg), feel earned because of the care Ivory, Aciman, and Guadagnino put into these characters.

So if there’s one takeaway from these two very different stories, it’s character. Strong characters and strong relationships give audiences something to connect with and help make narratives compelling, whether the story is a bittersweet love story set in the 80’s or a disturbing racial horror movie with tinges of science-fiction.

Read the Get Out Screenplay

Read the Call Me by Your Name Screenplay

Mudbound – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Directed by Dee Rees and written by Rees and Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound tracks the relationships between the white McAllan family, who recently bought a farm in Mississippi, and the Jackson family, who live and work on the land, before and after World War II. Although some of the elements may feel familiar—racism in the pre-Civil Rights-era South is well-trodden territory in both literature and film—Mudbound mixes race relations with PTSD, alcoholism, abject poverty, the horrors of war, masculinity, depression, and a Southern Gothic style, giving the film an epic feel that explores the full breadth of human emotion. As much as it is a movie about bigotry and discrimination, it’s also a film about the universality of pain, depression, and suffering—and how that pain can trickle down and turn back into bigotry and discrimination. Even though the majority of the characters face poverty, the script makes it clear that a racial hierarchy pervaded 1940’s rural Mississippi, both through subtle moments like Henry McAllan’s treatment of his land’s tenants to the explicit epithets Henry’s father frequently spouts, and this hierarchy simmers throughout the film until it finally boils over in a climax brutal and distressing in its realism.

Rees and Williams’ Academy Award–nominated script turns frequently to voice over, allowing the audience to get inside the heads of each of the six main characters. Though voice over often becomes a liability in lesser hands, the narration (coupled with Rees’ cerebral direction and cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s Oscar-nominated cinematography) gives the film a poetic feel in which the characters’ shared experiences and diverging perspectives fold on each other to paint a complex, unflinching, and epic portrait of the era, recalling older human dramas like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. “Show, don’t tell” is an enduring saying that will likely never go away, but the elegiac elegance of Mudbound’s voice over justifies itself, college writing course axioms be damned.

Although the screenplay, the direction, and the visuals provide an excellent draw, the actors give the story pathos, and Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund do their best to carry it as two veterans who befriend each other, but Mary J. Blige steals the show. Blige gives a standout performance that’s both emotive and understated—and she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the role. (She also scored a Best Song nom for the closing credits song.)

Mudbound is a rarity in modern film—an epic character study about racism that not only does justice to each of its characters but also looks to the past to tell a story relevant to our present. For that alone, it’s necessary viewing—and it’s on Netflix, so if you’re a subscriber, you’ve got no excuse.

Read the Mudbound Screenplay

SMILF – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

For the better part of a decade, the half-hour dramedy has been a staple of premium cable. Led by shows like Sex and the City and Weeds, many of these series combine biting humor, sympathetic yet edgy female leads, and serious themes. Often, this combination can be a delicate balancing act, and even the best dramedies can occasionally fall too far on the comedy–drama continuum and cause tonal whiplash. It takes truly talented writers, directors, and actors to keep this balance intact.

That’s part of the reason why SMILF is so impressive. Created by and starring Frankie Shaw (who also directed the pilot), SMILF follows Shaw’s Bridgett Bird, a 20-something single mother in Boston. The title stands for “Single Mother I’d Like to…” (you can probably complete the rest), but don’t let that stop you—the title betrays what is ultimately a realistic portrayal of single motherhood with a tone that, although comedic, feels true to life. Throughout the series, Bridgette tries to navigate life as she balances work and her audition schedule, attempts to have a normal sex life, worries that her sex life will never be normal again, struggles to pay the bills, and acts like she’s fine with her ex and his new girlfriend all while raising a toddler mostly as a single mother. Bridgette is an easy character to sympathize with, and every plot point is in service of her wants and herself as a person.

Although much changed between Shaw’s original draft and the final product, the framework for the series can be clearly seen in the script, and if anything, the changes helped refine Bridgette, her goals, and her relationships with those around her. Each of the series’ actors brings it—Shaw fully and perfectly embodies Bridgette, and the supporting cast (which includes Miguel Gomez, Samara Weaving, Rosie O’Donnell, and Connie Britton) also deliver.

Ultimately, SMILF is an exquisitely funny show that doubles as an honest, unapologetic look at a character we hardly see.

Read the SMILF Pilot

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Tragedy is, unfortunately, universal. What isn’t universal, though, is how we cope with it. Take Mildred Hayes. Seven months ago, her daughter was gruesomely murdered, and her local police department doesn’t so much as have a lead. Fed up with their lack of effort, Mildred rents three billboards on a dirt road asking the chief of police why no arrests have been made and unapologetically drags her entire town into her grieving process.

With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, writer/director Martin McDonagh, continuing in the tradition of his previous films In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths, has created another strong dark comedy with even stronger characters at its heart. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand in a committed performance), on paper, could come across as abrasive, but everything she does is a direct result of her daughter’s death and her need for closure and Mildred’s profane, outrageous attitude provides levity and humor to what might otherwise be a somber and dour drama. That’s not to say the film is thematically shallow—McDonagh is committed to showing that answers aren’t easy to come by, and he treats the would-be antagonists of the story (the cops whom Mildred views as ineffectual and apathetic) with surprising nuance. This isn’t a movie with clear-cut villains and heroes; it’s a story of grief and tragedy in a small town.

As great as the film is to watch, the script is equally as great to read. Moving at a brisk pace (and an even brisker 84 pages), McDonagh’s flair for irreverent dialogue comes across on the page, and even without McDormand’s performance, Mildred feels like a fully realized human, not just a character spouting lines and monologues. And Mildred’s unrelenting commitment to finding the killer and holding the police to a higher standard, even as the whole town turns against her, drives the script and makes Mildred a character easy to root for. Because, ultimately, Three Billboards is a story about a mother’s grief and how she comes to terms with her daughter’s death.

Read the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Script

The Big Sick – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Now that we’re nearing the end of 2017, studios have begun releasing scripts for potential Oscar contenders, and one film that received early and near-universal praise upon its release was The Big Sick. After watching the film, it’s easy to see its appeal. Directed by Michael Showalter and written by real-life couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (based on the true story of how they met), The Big Sick effortlessly balances comedy and drama without doing a disservice to either and touches on compelling themes along the way.

Set in Chicago, the film follows Kumail (played by Nanjiani himself), an aspiring stand-up comedian and current Uber driver, and Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), a grad student studying psychology, as their relationship starts. However, after five months, Emily breaks up with Kumail after she learns he still hasn’t told his traditional Pakistani family that he is dating a white woman. (One subplot features Kumail’s mother’s attempts to set him up in an arranged marriage, or as they call it in Pakistan, “marriage,” to paraphrase one of Kumail’s jokes.) But soon after, Emily falls ill, and Kumail’s the only person able to come to the hospital… which means he has the honor of calling her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano doing career-best work) after she’s placed in a medically induced coma. The film then follows Kumail as he attempts to befriend the parents, who already hate his guts since Emily told them everything.

Where The Big Sick succeeds the most is with the characters and their relationships. The banter between Kumail and Emily early on in the movie, and the excellent way Nanjiani and Kazan play off each other, makes them a couple hard to route against. The relationships—specifically the ones between Kumail and Emily, Kumail and his parents, Kumail and her parents, and Emily’s parents—help generate most of the film’s conflict. Throughout, characters don’t live up to others’ expectations, whether they be the choices they make, the lies they tell (or, conversely, the truths they speak), or how they plan to live their futures.

All in all, if you haven’t seen it yet, The Big Sick is well worth a watch: it’s a (somewhat) serious rom-com that finds humor in a tragic situation.

Read The Big Sick Script

Hidden Figures – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

At times, it feels as though Hollywood has exploited every moment in history for the sake of a movie. It’s becoming rarer and rarer to find a historical figure who hasn’t had their story portrayed in a film in some way, so nowadays, when a film zeroes in on an interesting event that few know about, it’s typically worth mentioning. However, director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures goes a step further. The movie uses an event many people know about, John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth, as its backdrop but tells it from a perspective few were aware of.

Scripted by Allison Schroeder and Melfi and based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Hidden Figures follows Katharine Johnson, an African American woman who calculated the trajectories that made Glenn’s mission possible, and her African American coworkers Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson during a time Virginia and NASA were still heavily segregated. Over the course of the movie, they rise in their respective fields and help make history at NASA.

Although it’s easy to see where the story is heading even with limited knowledge of the real Katharine Johnson, the moments Melfi and Schroeder chose to portray perfectly articulate the film’s themes and message. For example, one of Hidden Figures’ running threads follows Katharine as she attempts to use the restroom. Because the Langley Research Center’s bathrooms are still segregated, Katharine has to run to the basement of the only building on campus that houses a “colored” women’s room, located a half mile away, sometimes in the pouring rain, and always in high heels. But this provides a small example of the sort of race and gender discrimination these women faced throughout the movie. At every turn, they are either underestimated, ignored, or treated with hostility outright. However, most of the conflict and antagonism isn’t that explicit; rather, it’s the small reactions and subtle lines of dialogue that underscore the racism and sexism of the era. But because the odds are so heavily stacked against them, it’s hard not to hope they rocket through NASA’s glass ceiling, so to speak.

And in their own ways, Katharine, Mary, and Dorothy did. Hidden Figures may not have the intense stakes of a James Bond flick (and having the benefit of knowing the history of the Space Race and John Glenn’s mission in particular makes some plot points a foregone conclusion), but because the characters were so committed to their goals, their stories become compelling and inspirational. And the fact that the film’s themes and the characters’ struggles are still relevant today helps Hidden Figures stand out. In short, this is the sort of movie that the phrase “crowd-pleasing” was invented to describe.

Read the Hidden Figures Script

Legion – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Within the last decade, some might argue that comic book movies have become needlessly ubiquitous. Just looking at the major studios’ upcoming slates can give the impression that Hollywood is simply in the superhero business, eschewing thoughtful character-driven films for tentpoles that feel almost interchangeable. The fate of the world is in jeopardy, special effects–ridden fight scenes ensue, hero saves the day, see you again next summer. The most successful superhero movies have either bucked that formula or twisted it to provide something fresh (take, for example, Deadpool‘s meta satire, Wonder Woman‘s feminist themes, or Logan‘s gritty western noir), but perhaps, none have done so more successfully than Legion.

Created by Noah Hawley of FX’s Fargo and based on Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Marvel character, Legion ostensibly takes place in the X-Men universe, but the series plays more akin to a psychological, almost Lovecraftian or Lynchian horror movie than anything else. Sure, the majority of the characters are similar to the mutants we’ve grown to love (albeit with quirkier superpowers), but they ultimately take a back seat to the show’s namesake David Haller. Portrayed by Dan Stevens, David suffers from a variety of mental illnesses including what seems to be dissociative identity disorder and self-medicates his problems. However, he doesn’t realize that he may be, as another character notes, “the most powerful telepath we’ve ever encountered.” Worst of all, he can’t quite control his powers, making him perhaps the most dangerous mutant in the show, which is why a seemingly evil government organization, a more benevolent collective of mutants, and a mysterious cosmic entity all seem to want to get a hold of him.

Hawley leans heavily on David’s delicate mental state to supply most of the show’s suspense and horror, and it works on just about every level. The “devil with yellow eyes” and the “angriest boy in the world” continually haunt David’s (and the audience’s) dreams, and numerous set pieces set inside his past memories help keep audiences on the edge of their seats. At times, this feels less like an X-Men or Marvel show and more like American Horror Story with mutants. But that doesn’t mean the show is all horror—David’s mental state also allows Hawley quirky indulgences, including a Bollywood dance number in the show’s pilot. Basically, Legion walks a very fine line in terms of its tone, but Hawley’s writing and Stevens’ committed performance help ground the show, at least as much as a show about a psychic, schizophrenic mutant who battles demonic cosmic entities can be grounded.

Beyond David’s character, Legion features a stacked supporting cast, including the always brilliant Jean Smart, Bill Irwin and Jermaine Clement in quirky, hilarious, and heartbreaking supporting roles, and Aubrey Plaza, who turns in a bravura performance that the Emmys have somehow chosen to ignore. Also worth noting is the insane production design, which perfectly establishes the show’s aesthetic while at the same time keeping its chronological setting ambiguous, much like FX/FXX’s animated comedy Archer.

But all in all, it is rare to see a show so assured of its story and tone this early in its run. For comic book fans and non-fans alike, Legion breathes a demented breath of fresh air into a genre that has in some cases become too formulaic in plot. At very least, Twin Peaks just ended again, so you’re going to need to fill your time somehow, right?

Read the Legion Pilot

Kubo and the Two Strings – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Pixar may be getting all the gifs and Buzzfeed articles (deservingly so), but in the background, Laika has been quietly producing some of the greatest animated films ever made. Known for mastering the painstaking process of stop-motion animation, Laika got their start with Henry Selick’s excellent adaptation of Coraline, and they haven’t slowed down since. Although they only have four films to their name, their relatively small oeuvre could easily rank among Pixar’s best.

Laika continued their streak last year with the criminally under-watched Kubo and the Two Strings. Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler and directed by Travis Knight, Kubo follows a young boy named Kubo who plays a magical shamisen. He sets off on a journey with a talking monkey and a samurai who was turned in a beetle to avenge his mother’s death.

So the story may follow the archetypical “hero’s journey” as described by Joseph Campbell, with the call to adventure and the various challenges along the way that pit good against evil, but what makes the script so great (and what earns the movie its 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) are its themes. As has become expected in modern children’s movies, Kubo doesn’t shy away from a mature depiction of its themes: family, death, empathy, and memory. Memory is the movie’s focus in particular—Kubo surprisingly and poignantly depicts early onset Alzheimer’s in a manner that rivals most “adult” films.

Anchored by a strong script and featuring one of the most realized fantasy worlds in recent memory, Kubo and the Two Strings is an excellent watch for anyone who appreciates great storytelling or animation in general.

Read the Kubo and the Two Strings Script

Trial & Error – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Trial & Error isn’t the most revolutionary show. The mockumentary borrows heavily from Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and other recent true crime stories that have recently gained pop culture notoriety. In lesser hands, the show could have settled for a parody of those documentaries, adding nothing new to the table but jokes and sight gags, but creators Jeff Astrof (The New Adventures of Old Christine, Friends) and Matt Miller (Chuck, the Lethal Weapon TV show) went a step further and centered the series on a group of sympathetic outsiders: the bisexual poetry professor accused of killing his wife in the Deep South (John Lithgow), the junior defense attorney from New York hoping for his big break (Nicholas D’Agosto), his legal assistant with a laundry list of psychological and medical conditions (Sherri Shepherd), and his investigator who was fired from the police department for sheer incompetence (Steven Boyer).

The show is able to delicately balance the stakes of the story with the humor. The people of East Peck, South Carolina, immediately label Lithgow’s Larry Henderson as a murderer, and the threat of the death penalty hangs over Larry’s trial throughout the show. Prosecutor Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays) is gunning for it; she has aspirations to be East Peck’s first female D.A., and a death penalty conviction would seal it for her. But despite the stakes, much of the humor comes from the defense team. Larry is kind-hearted—the script describes him as “harmless”—but he’s also oblivious, going as far as worrying more about whether the cable guy’s coming than his wife’s death while on the phone with the 911 operator. D’Agosto’s Josh Segal (described by the citizens of East Peck as a “Northeasterner”) attempts to corral his assistants and his defendant and plays the role of the straight man throughout the proceedings.

The game cast and sharp writing help elevate this series to the next level, and this is a great series for those itching for something similar to Parks and Recreation.

Read the Trial & Error Pilot