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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

The Favourite – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Perhaps the biggest surprise at this year’s Oscars was Olivia Colman taking the Best Actress trophy. In the lead up, most pundits assumed the competition was between Lady Gaga and perennial nominee Glenn Close, but Colman managed to swoop in and nab the prize. It was an unexpected moment, but one that was incredibly well-deserved. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite takes historical figure Anne, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and uses her life to craft a compelling story of loss, romance, and the pursuit of power. Davis and McNamara place Anne at the center of a love triangle as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s estranged cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) compete to curry Anne’s favor. Sarah is the Queen’s current “favourite”—she’s Anne’s righthand woman and also lover, and Abigail envies her for it. What pursues is a…

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

It’s always nice when the Oscars get it right. It doesn’t happen every time, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s Best Animated Feature win was incredibly well-deserved—it was one of last year’s best movies, animated or live-action. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman and written by Phil Lord and Rothman, and based on Marvel’s Spider-Verse comics, the story follows Miles Morales as he explores his nascent spidey-powers after (spoiler) Peter Parker’s death and helps other Spider-People from elsewhere in the multiverse return to their respective universes. One issue superhero movies can run into is stakes. Unless, for example, Chris Evans wants to retire from the role, you’re not gonna see Captain America die (apologies for the potential Avengers: Endgame spoiler). So it’s necessary for writers and directors to include compelling relationships for the hero to raise the stakes. In Into the Spider-Verse, Miles’ relationships with his father and…

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The Other Two – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Perhaps the most important element for every television show is concept. Unlike movies, television shows need to convince audiences not only to watch the pilot but also to watch two or three or more seasons. This means combining a high-concept premise with compelling characters. Breaking Bad had that “wow” factor, as did stuff as diverse as Weeds, The Wire, and Killing Eve. But perhaps my favorite recent example is The Other Two. Here’s the premise in a nutshell: Imagine a teenager who becomes famous overnight after his Youtube music video goes viral (not unlike Justin Bieber). The show isn’t about him; it’s about his two older siblings, who are well into their late twenties and are not even remotely successful. It’s about them—the “other two.” Written by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the pilot’s teaser does an excellent job depicting that disparity. The show opens with 13-year-old sensation Chase Dubek…

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Russian Doll – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

When it was released in 1993, Groundhog Day became a critical and commercial success, but its real legacy is its narrative. In the years since, countless movies and TV shows have played with the temporal loop structure Groundhog Day helped establish, in such diverse works as Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day, Run, Lola, Run and at least one episode of nearly every sci-fi show the last two decades. The second most-recent example (barely beat out by Happy Death Day 2U—now in theaters!) is also the one that best exploits the premise from a thematic and philosophical perspective. Created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, Russian Doll takes the basic Groundhog Day premise and exploits it for all the existential dread it can muster. Although ostensibly a comedy (there are plenty of laughs to be had at the expense of NYC hipsters and with the dark comedy death…

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Crazy Rich Asians – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Romantic comedy can be one of the most difficult genres to write. Sure, the ubiquity of mediocre romcoms might imply otherwise, but truly great movies in the genre are rather rare. For a good romantic comedy, the audience needs to not only care about the characters but also care about the stakes and believe that those stakes have real weight and real consequences. Over the summer, Crazy Rich Asians burst into theaters and became an immediate sensation—in equal parts because it provided much-needed representation of a group Hollywood often underrepresented and because it’s a damn good story. Directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim from Kevin Kwan’s novel, Crazy Rich Asians, the story follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who travels to her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) hometown in Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family, who are crazy-rich and…

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Sorry to Bother You – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

It’s difficult to summarize Sorry to Bother You. Written and directed by rapper Boots Riley (his debut film as both writer and director), the film is easily the most original of 2018, and it’s got things to say. The story follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who really needs a job. The only place that’s hiring (and will also hire anyone) is a local telemarketing firm. At first, everyone Cash calls almost immediately hangs up on him, which is not so great since Cash works on commission. Eventually, he takes the advice of his coworker Langston (Danny Glover) and begins to use a “white voice,” which sounds exactly like David Cross. (Cross’s voice was dubbed over to hilarious results.) Soon, he becomes the firm’s number one telemarketer, and his life begins improving. That is, until the fratty CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) takes an interest in Cash. From there, things quickly…

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Annihilation – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

There’s always that one movie you meant to watch in theaters but just never got around to seeing. I knew I had to see Annihilation after watching the trailer, with its beautiful visuals, unique synthesized score, and amazing cast. But for whatever reason, I didn’t make it in time, and honestly, missing it was a huge mistake. Written and directed by Alex Garland (whom we’ve talked about previously) and based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the movie starts with a simple premise: There’s a mysterious and expanding sci-fi anomaly called The Shimmer in the southern United States, and every team the government has sent in has disappeared, except for one man, who mysteriously shows up a year after his trip inside. His wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist and military veteran, volunteers to go into The Shimmer with a team led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). From…

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American Vandal – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

American Vandal has no right being as good as it is. Created and written by Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, the show ostensibly parodies true crime shows (most predominantly fellow Netflix series Making a Murderer), but like any good comedy, it aims to satirize contemporary life. For the first season, the show’s central mystery revolves around an act of graffiti in which a student draws phallic imagery on every faculty car at their high school, and it seeks to answer, to quote the show’s constant refrain, “Who drew the d*cks?” Is it crude? Most definitely. But despite how crude American Vandal is (and it is—even more so its second season), the show somehow transcends its sophomoric humor and becomes one of the most compelling mysteries on television. The pilot mostly presents the characters and the list of potential suspects and establishes the tone. Like Making a Murderer, the show’s “documentarians”…

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The Sinner – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Within the first 15 minutes of The Sinner, you know who the killer is. There’s no doubt about it—you see it happen, and dozens of witnesses see it too. Although a mystery, The Sinner isn’t as interested in the whodunnit, but the whydunnit. And centering the series on that aspect helps make The Sinner a taut, suspenseful, unpredictable thriller. Written and developed by Derek R. Simonds and based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr, the story opens with Cora (a spellbinding Jessica Biel in a powerhouse performance that’s currently up for an Emmy) going through a typical day. We get a subtle sense that she’s unhappy, troubled in some way, and our suspicions are confirmed almost immediately when she stabs a stranger on a crowded beach in broad daylight. From there, the question becomes why she did it, and detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is the man pursuing it. Flashbacks…

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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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Lady Dynamite – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

One of the downsides to this era of peak TV is that there are now seemingly more shows than people to watch them, but the biggest upside to this is that companies are more likely to take on riskier, more niche shows. And as a result, we sometimes receive shows that are just absolute joys, like Lady Dynamite. Created by Pam Brady (South Park, the underrated Hamlet 2) and Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development), the show is a semi-biographical look at comedian Maria Bamford’s life. Notably, the series tackles her diagnosis with bipolar disorder and the challenges she’s experienced because of it. In other hands, this show could be oppressively bleak, but Brady, Hurwitz, and Bamford use that as a starting point to explore mental health through comedy. Given the pedigree of those involved in the show, it should come as no surprise that the show is hilarious; however, the comedy…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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