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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

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” posit that the person who’s been labeled guilty might actually be innocent, and they attempt to present his case. The entire mystery and investigation is played completely straight—even though the mystery is “Who drew the d*cks?” But this tone is what sells it, and the mockumentary style allows Yacenda and Perrault to slip in valid commentary about today’s youth culture and how they interact with online life. The second season even forgets to tell jokes for the last five episodes and instead offers a unexpectedly moving commentary about how the internet has supplanted everyday life. And the second season’s villain is the “Turd Burglar.” (It’s much more disgusting than it sounds.) It takes a deft hand to pull that off.

Even if juvenile humor isn’t your thing, American Vandal is worth checking out. If you’re reading this, you’re either on a computer or a smart phone. And if you’re anything like me, you probably spend a large portion of your day staring at a screen of some kind, and a large portion of your interactions with humans are on one of those screens. Our real lives are becoming more and more intertwined with our virtual personalities, and who we are online is who we are. American Vandal is one of the first shows to explore the actual implications of that, and as a result, it’s more compelling than it has any right to be.

Read the American Vandal Pilot

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 and interviews slowly piece together some of the details.

The most important part of any mystery is, obviously, the mystery. That’s why we’re here in the first place, right? It’s a simple statement, but in practice it’s much harder to pull off. The audience needs to care about the mystery, and if the audience doesn’t care, it’s like that proverbial tree in a forest: If no one wants to know the answer, does the story make an impact? Fortunately, Simonds and Hammesfahr have crafted a gripping thriller with many of the genre’s requisite twists and turns, but the answers to the central mystery are centered in Cora. Without spoiling too much (in general, viewers are too sensitive and tend to be spoiler-averse to a fault, but spoiling plot points in a mystery is simply sociopathic), Cora quickly proves herself to be more victim than sinner, and the story becomes as much a psychological character study as it does a mystery.

Originally set up at USA (the channel) as a limited series, the first season proved to be a success, and the show was quickly picked up for a second, with Pullman’s detective returning to investigate another murderer. Both seasons are worth checking out, especially for any writers interested in how to create—and sustain—compelling mysteries.  This is simply one of the best shows on television right now.

Read The Sinner Pilot

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 if you’re too loud—well, good luck with that. The result is ninety of the tensest minutes in film history. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason this movie became a surprise hit upon its release. (It holds 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and 84/100 on Metacritic, and it made over $300 million on a $20 million budget.)

One of the screenplay’s greatest assets is its willingness to ask what’s the worst that could happen. The answer: Make one of the main characters pregnant and have her go into labor early. How many birth scenes have you seen on film? And how many of them feature a woman who has to remain absolutely quiet or else face certain death? Yeah…. And it doesn’t help that once the baby’s born, all the newborn wants to do is cry.

Although this draft of the script is an earlier one (this draft is Woods and Beck’s spec script that caught Krasinski’s attention), the bones are all there. It’s a quick, electric read—because the story necessitates it, the script lacks much dialogue, so it comes in at a brisk 67 pages. It’s easy to see how the script attracted Krasinski in the first place, and why Emily Blunt (Krasinski’s real-life wife) agreed to star in it with him.

In recent years, horror movies have experienced a strong creative resurgence (see Get Out, Hereditary, Annihilation, and the Unfriended movies for some of the most recent ones). A Quiet Place undoubtedly earns a place on that list and will surely go down as bonafide classic in the genre. Read the script and see the movie. It’s a masterclass in effective cinematic tension.

Read A Quiet Place‘s Script

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 always serves a thematic purpose. For example, the humor leans heavily toward surreal and frantically fast-paced, almost like a manic episode (just look at the pilot’s cold open). At other times, in flashbacks to her life in Duluth, the narrative slows down, the color palette cools, and the show takes on the tone of a half-hour dramedy. To say that this show is off-beat would be an understatement, but the writers and actors (especially Bamford) are committed to the show’s vision and sensibilities and to the idea of creating a truly bipolar television series, filled with swings between mania and depression, overconfidence and self-doubt, fast-paced frenzy and slowed-down sedation. It’s a difficult balancing act (dramatic tonal shifts are essentially a literary device for the series), but once you get on Lady Dynamite’s wavelength, it’s one of the most rewarding shows in recent memory.

Earlier this year, Netflix canceled the show after two seasons, which is a shame, but hey, it’s fortunate we got any episodes of this charming, self-aware, fabulously weird series to begin with. It’s definitely not for anyone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out. Corn!

Read the Lady Dynamite Pilot

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