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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

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

The Handmaid’s Tale – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

World building is an essential element to any pilot. Some shows require more than others (e.g., shows with deeper mythologies like The X-Files or Fringe demand more groundwork in the pilot than a typical sitcom would), but at minimum, the audience needs to have some sense of the show’s setting before they can truly connect to the pilot’s story and agree to spend twenty or more hours with the series.

“Offred,” the pilot episode of The Handmaid’s Tale (written by Bruce Miller and Ilene Chaiken and based on Margaret Atwood’s novel), eschews many of the finer details of how this dystopian, authoritarian state of Gilead, a near-future version of New England, came about. We do get some hints—there was an infertility epidemic and many characters speak of the radiated outlands—but instead of overwhelming us with specifics, the pilot opts to paint a compelling picture of life inside this world, particularly from the perspective of the women. In short, most women have little freedom. Unless your husband is among the elites, you are expected to perform a specific function in life. The Marthas are the housekeepers, the aunts are older women in charge of the handmaids and are tasked with reeducating them, and the handmaids themselves are concubines for the elite men whose wives are infertile. Each woman’s role is highlighted by her attire: Marthas wear light blue, aunts wear tan, and handmaids wear red.

The show is seen through the eyes of Offred (Elizabeth Moss), a handmaid. We are introduced to her as she, her husband, and their daughter attempt to flee from the nascent Gilead to Canada, but in the process, her husband is shot and she is captured. Years later, she serves as a handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford, and her new name Offred cements her role in society—she is no longer an individual, just “of Fred,” one of his belongings. Offred has been separated from her daughter, and she believes that her husband is dead.

Much of the episode plays almost like a horror movie, with religious fundamentalism run amok. Much of Gilead’s practices are grounded in warped interpretations of Bible verses, and dissenters such as Catholic priests, doctors, and homosexuals are hung, their bodies placed on display in public. The handmaids are forced to chide a rape survivor with chants that it was “her fault” and that God let it happen to “teach her a lesson.” In another scene, the handmaids are forced to beat a criminal to death. However, these scenes aren’t haunting or terrifying because of their content. Instead, the pilot achieves that through the characters’ reactions, or rather lack or reactions. They’re forced to go through these scenes almost matter-of-factly. This is life now.

By the end of the episode, we see a framework form for the show moving forward. Offred allies with a fellow handmaid (Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen), and we learn her real name: June. But plot aside, the real draws for the show are the acting (which is universally excellent) and the themes at the heart of the story: identity, feminism, misogyny, authoritarianism, fascism, fundamentalism, to name a few. Needless to say, there’s much to unpack within the series. The show itself (as well as the book it’s based on) is well-crafted and, at times, disturbing. To put it simply, this is prestige television worth watching.

Read The Handmaid’s Tale Pilot

Enlightened – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Enlightened is the best TV show ever made. Is that hyperbole? Maybe. At the very least, it’s probably the best TV show you haven’t watched. Created by stars Laura Dern (Big Little Lies, Inland Empire) and Mike White (School of Rock, Orange County) and written entirely by White (literally…he wrote every episode), the series follows Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, a self-destructive executive who has a very public breakdown in the pilot’s opening minutes and is subsequently fired. From there, she goes to a treatment center in Hawaii to get a new outlook on life and treat her depression/bipolar disorder, becomes a low-level data cruncher at Abaddon, the same corporation she was fired from, and eventually becomes a whistleblower to all the sins her company has committed.

As a protagonist, Amy can be a tad frustrating at times, but as a viewer, you can’t help but root for her. The pilot’s first shot does a ton to earn her sympathy.  As she sits alone in a bathroom stall and sobs, two co-workers enter and discuss office gossip about her. There’s no question that this is her lowest point.  It also helps that this is a bluntly hilarious scene. Throughout the series, Amy has noble intentions, but the means through which she achieves them are less so. She does morally questionable things. She can be self-centered and often puts her own wants above anyone else’s.  She is the definition of a flawed character. But nevertheless, she is fascinating to watch. Even if you don’t agree with what she does, you empathize with her, and you want her to succeed, and you want her to stay better. It’s a delicate balancing act that Laura Dern’s performance and Mike White’s writing nail completely.

A show centered on Amy coping with and treating her mental illness while trying to help the world could be a great show, but what elevates Enlightened to that next level is its supporting cast.  Like Amy, the entire cast is filled with people who are broken in some way. Amy’s ex-husband Levi Callow (Luke Wilson) is a drug addict in varying states of recovery throughout the series; her coworker Tyler (Mike White) can best be described as shy, sad, and lonely; and her mother Helen (played by Dern’s real life mom Diane Ladd) seems icy and distant at first but has her own ghosts from the past, the greatest of which is that she blames herself for her husband’s death. White’s scripts treat these characters in revolutionary ways, and he often takes episode-long breaks from the series’ (and Amy’s) main storyline to delve deeper into the supporting casts’ inner lives, the best being season one’s “Consider Helen,” which is one of the finest half-hours of any series and which, in a just world, would have won every award there is.

Although few people watched the show (its viewership hovered around 200,000 for the majority of its run), Enlightened is the definition of prestige TV.  It’s meditative and often depressing but at the same time can be deeply human and hilarious. Simply put, few shows even come near it in terms of character development and theme, and if you’re a fan of television or quality writing in general and haven’t seen Enlightened, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Read the Enlightened Pilot

Moonlight – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

It’s arguable what the most important element of a movie is. The plot hooks the audience, the directing keeps the audience entertained, and the theme gives the audience something to think about once the credits start rolling. However, at the center of each of these elements are the characters. Movies that lack strong characters will often feel hollow—a movie can have the largest, most exciting set pieces, but without strong characters, the audience won’t have anything to truly connect with.

Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins and written by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (based on McCraney’s unpublished play), is perhaps the purest example of a character study. The film is divided into three chapters, and each centers on Chiron, a young black man from a rough neighborhood coming to terms with his sexuality, at different stages his life (childhood, adolescence, and adulthood). In lesser hands, this structure could feel jagged and lack cohesion, but Jenkins and McCraney connect the stories through the film’s themes (which include masculinity and sexuality) and through Chiron’s relationships.

The first chapter (“Little,” Chiron’s nickname as a twelve-year-old) sets the stage for the rest of the movie: Little befriends a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali in an Oscar-winning role), who becomes a surrogate father of sorts. He’s the first person to accept Little for who he is, sexuality and all, and his absence is felt throughout the rest of the movie (a testament to the strength of Ali’s acting and Jenkins and McCraney’s screenplay). In the second chapter (“Chiron”), Chiron navigates life without his father figure’s influence, and the final chapter (“Black”) shows him emulating Juan in both aesthetics and career. The other relationships are also great (his drug-addicted mother, his first teenage romance, and Juan’s supportive girlfriend each help shape Chiron and the film), but Chiron and Juan’s relationship serves as the backbone. Without it, there would be no story.

This was a personal script (both Jenkins and McCraney based the characters off real people and the story off their own experiences), and the passion they have for the story and the characters shows. That’s the reason why Moonlight won Best Picture—it’s personal, moving film that tells a universal message. For writers, this is simply a film worth aspiring to.

Read the Moonlight Screenplay