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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

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

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