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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

Pride – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

We’re deep in June, which is officially Pride Month, so why not catch up on a recent LGBT flick that may have flown under your radar?

Pride, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus, didn’t receive much attention here in the States despite receiving almost universally positive reviews, and that’s a shame because this movie has it all—comedy, romance, drama, tragedy, and even history. Yes, Pride is based on a true story, a seemingly unlikely one at that. Set in the early ‘80s, the film follows gay activists from London as they raise awareness for striking coal miners in South Wales. The group (the aptly named Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) reasoned that, since both the miners and the LGBT community faced oppression from the British government and police forces, they could form an alliance of sorts. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, so to speak. However odd the pairing may sound, what resulted was a strong friendship between two communities linked by similar experiences of marginalization.

Like the creative team behind Hidden Figures, Beresford found a compelling real-life event that few had heard of, one that seemed almost too unusual or anachronistic to be true, making it the perfect story for a film adaptation. Working-class coal miners and gay rights activists aren’t exactly the most natural of allies, and that serves as an amazing source of tension. Since the mineworkers’ union is initially reluctant to accept the LGSM’s support, the LGSM limits their activism to one small town desperate for help. The men of the village aren’t the most welcoming (the women and children are more inviting), and some are outright homophobic. With the men on strike, the women are supporting their families, and having gays help as well was yet another source of emasculation. At first. Charity and kindness in times of crisis go a long way.

The screenplay juggles a large ensemble, effortlessly blending historical figures with characters who feel just as real. Some notable real-life characters include Mark Ashton, gay rights activist and founder of LGSM who ultimately died from AIDS shortly after the events of this movie; Jonathan Blake, one of the first men in London diagnosed with HIV and who is still alive; and Hefina Headon and Siân James, members of the Women’s Support Group for the striking miners (the latter of whom eventually became a Member of Parliament, the first female MP to serve her constituency). And although the characters deal with the bleak realities of the time and their circumstances—homophobia, HIV/AIDS, poverty, police harassment—the screenplay and the movie never lose their sense of humor. Both are hilarious throughout.

“Crowd-pleasing” gets tossed around a lot, almost to the point that it’s an empty advertising buzzword, but that descriptor certainly applies here. The movie works towards those “crowd-pleasing” moments and earns each of them, with the final scene feeling legitimately triumphant. Not to give too much away (though, I mean, this is based on a true story—the rules against spoilers in movies shouldn’t apply to history, but whatever), the National Union of Mineworkers ends up unequivocally supporting gay rights in the United Kingdom, thanks in no small part to the work of LGSM. It’s a story of two disparate communities coming together to forge an alliance and fight for their rights. A story that’s still relevant today.

(And if for some reason none of that sold you, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy are in it. Everyone loves them, right?)

Read the Pride Screenplay

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

In preparation for the television upfronts, Fox axed a huge percentage of its lineup last week, but the cancellation heard ’round the world was critical darling Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The fans’ reaction was immediate, and people such as Guillermo del Toro, Mark Hamill, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and seemingly half of Twitter took to the internet to voice their disappointment, ultimately leading to NBC’s decision to pick up the show the very next day. (Cue a well-deserved Jake Peralta “Noice.”) As a result, the fans literally saved the Nine-Nine, NBC got back a series they let slip to another network (despite airing on Fox, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was produced by NBC/Universal), and everybody lived happily ever after.

The backlash Fox received from cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a testament to its quality. Joke by joke, it’s one of the funniest shows (if not the funniest) currently airing on television. For some shows, you’ll hear people say that you should skip the first season or it doesn’t really get going until episode 4. Not the case with B99. If you haven’t seen it, the pilot is actually a great place to start. Written by Dan Goor and Michael Schur (whom you may recognize from another amazing sitcom Parks and Rec), the pilot is an instant classic and introduces the audience to its lived-in, diverse cast of characters, who feel like real people with unique, specific points of view and not just a collection of punchlines.

The tone is almost anything-goes when it comes to humor, but at the same time, the show respects its characters and allows time to explore serious issues. For example, the pilot introduces a new captain to the Nine-Nine, Raymond Holt, an openly gay, black detective played by a spectacularly deadpan Andre Braugher. The first season makes frequent references to his being openly gay in the workplace at a time that wasn’t socially acceptable (the ‘80s), and while the show makes (hilarious) jokes about that through flashback, it avoids diminishing his experiences or his character. The show is equally inclusive when it comes to race and gender, and that inclusivity is what makes it a standout series. The cast is stacked with talented performers: Melissa Fumero as type-A-to-a-fault Amy Santiago, Stephanie Beatriz as intimidating-as-hell-but-incredibly-loyal Rosa Diaz, Terry Crews as the physically intimidating but soft hearted Terry Jeffords, Andy Samberg as the goofily charming man-child Jake Peralta, Chelsea Peretti as the narcissistic assistant Gina Linetti, Joe Lo Truglio as oddball Charles Boyle, and Dirk Blocker and Joel McKinnon Miller as the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum of the Nine-Nine, Michael Hitchcock and Norm Scully. Each of them has multiple hilarious lines every episode, and they help fill out an already well-defined world.

So in short, you should read the pilot, catch up on the show on Hulu if you haven’t yet, and wait for season six to come to NBC later this year.

Read the Brooklyn Nine-Nine Pilot

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