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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The one major upside to having so many outlets for television series is that more networks are willing to take risks on shows that otherwise might not be made. Take for instance The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a self-aware musical comedy about, well, a crazy ex-girlfriend (but the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that). Star, writer, and co-creator Rachel Bloom initially got her start penning Youtube songs, many of which went viral (including her lewd but hilarious Ray Bradbury song), but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has solidified her as one of the few internet stars to find legitimate success offline. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna’s pilot script follows Rebecca Bunch, who seemingly has the perfect life and prefers to see the world as a musical. She’s a lawyer in New York and makes a considerable amount of money, but nevertheless, she’s depressed and still has never gotten over Josh, a boy whom she had…

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Postcards from the Edge – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Postcards from the Edge is an emotional film, closely tied to Carrie Fisher’s substance abuse problems and her relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Any great screenplay focuses on characters and relationships, and Postcards is a thinly veiled study of Debbie and Carrie’s. Fisher doctored many other scripts, including the Star Wars prequels and The Wedding Planner, all of which were uncredited rewrites, but for Postcards, she solely wrote the script and the semi-autobiographical novel it is based on. How often does the word “genius” get tossed around? Because it mostly definitely applies here and to this screenplay. The story follows a Hollywood actress as she tries to overcome her addiction to cocaine and pharmaceuticals while under the shadow of her famous mother, closely echoing Carrie’s own life. Directed by the late Mike Nichols, Postcards features amazing performances from Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, both of whom (in this writer’s…

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Jackie – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Biopics remain a popular genre for Hollywood. The lesser productions could be considered toothless awards bait, but the best biopics transcend that cynical generalization and offer insight into the human condition, exploring themes relevant and compelling to the audience. Written by Noah Oppenheim, Jackie isn’t just a biopic—the film is an intimate character study of the former First Lady. Jackie never wanted the spotlight, and the script plays with this internal conflict, depicting her as a woman torn between being a grieving widow and, to quote the movie, the “mother” to all Americans. Throughout the screenplay, Jackie tries to take control of her and her husband’s narratives; she insists that her husband have a funeral like Lincoln’s, complete with a procession on foot through the streets of Washington, despite the potential security risks, and when she begins her interview with a reporter from Life magazine, she tells him that she “will…

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Bad Moms – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The Bad ____ genre has endured remarkably well. Bad Santa kicked off the trend in 2003, and many similarly titled movies have followed suit, most recently Bad Moms. This comedy subgenre is tough to get just right: at a certain point, if the main character has done too many “bad” things or begins their arc from too “bad” a place, the audience might have difficulty connecting with the characters. But a corollary to that: if the character is funny enough, the audience could easily be along for the ride. In Bad Moms, writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore split the difference with the script’s main character, Amy (Mia Kunis). She’s an overworked mother who’s been stretched too thin and whose husband not only skirts the parenting duties off to her but is also having an affair. As a result, Amy becomes an instantly relatable and sympathetic character, and when she finally snaps…

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You’re the Worst – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The pilot is perhaps the most important episode for a series. A successful pilot not only needs to establish the tone and the characters, but first and foremost, it needs to give the audience a reason to watch episode two. For serialized shows, that reason typically centers around the plots and relationships the pilot episode has established. Although upon first inspection You’re the Worst might appear to be a Bad Santa or Bad Teacher knock-off in which characters who are all id say whatever snarky, cynical ideas that pop into their heads, creator Stephen Falk does a masterful painting Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) as damaged, self-destructive people bitter at the world. Neither is where they want to be in life: Jimmy is a failed author while Gretchen is a PR executive with an immature client. The pilot follows Jimmy and Gretchen as they struggle in their personal…

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Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – Screenplays

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Mel Brooks is often regarded as one of the masters of comedy, but his greatest cinematic achievements are his three collaborations with Gene Wilder, who recently passed in August. In 1974, Brooks and Wilder made two classic films that remain hilarious and have shaped modern comedy: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Parody is a difficult subgenre to perfect, but Wilder and Brooks’ one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein serves as the quintessence of the genre. Although both borrowed heavily from other sources (and spoofed them lovingly), both films work well even without the jokes. Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) is instantly relatable and sympathetic: He’s a black sheriff forced to protect a racist town. Similarly, Young Frankenstein’s “Froderick Fronkensteen” (Gene Wilder) tries to distance himself from his grandfather’s notoriety but nevertheless becomes another Frankenstein. Despite the constant jokes, both scripts focus on the main characters, and neither…

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Stranger Things – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The pilot is one of the most important episodes of a series. Perhaps the most important. Not only does it have to establish the characters, the world, and the tone, but it also has to convince viewers to come back for the next installment (or, in case of online streaming, not exiting out of the browser window). Stranger Things, Netflix’s latest television mega-success, does exactly that. By the end of the teaser, the show has nailed a tense opening sequence and establishes a few of the mysteries that it will explore over the next few episodes, particularly who is the tall man and what happened to Will, a 12-year-old who disappears right before the title credits roll. Throughout the rest of the pilot, the audience is given few answers, but the mysteries deepen and expand to the point that the majority of viewers should be hooked. The Duffer Brothers, the show’s…

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Hannibal – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Hannibal may be the oddest show to ever air on network television, at least this side of Twin Peaks or Pushing Daisies. Created by Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies) and based on Thomas Harris’ famous Hannibal Lecter novels, the show began as an artistic, grisly, psychological crime series with procedural elements and by its third season, evolved into artistic, grisly, suspenseful, surreal quasi–love story between Dr. Lecter and his FBI nemesis Will Graham. In short, the show felt like a cable series that somehow stumbled onto NBC, and although three seasons was way too short (Fuller only managed to tackle three of his planned six seasons), NBC should be praised for allowing this to air as long as it did. The show never lit up the ratings (Hannibal tallied respectable numbers for a premium series, but not so much for a network show), and the violence at times rivaled…

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Gravity – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a big movie–breathtaking in its scope and impressive in its vision. Most of the praise Gravity received upon its release focused on its visual effects and cinematography. (All of which undeniably deserved. . . the amount of work put into bringing Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón’s script to life is a feat unto itself.) The technical complexity overshadowed the screenplay, which is much simpler in comparison, but nevertheless an excellent example of suspenseful, cinematic writing. The Cuaróns’ story is stripped down to its essential elements: three named characters, not too many more speaking roles, a 70-page script turned into a 90-minute movie. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock at her best), an astronaut who gets stranded in space after the Explorer shuttle is unintentionally destroyed, just wants to survive and make it back to Earth alive. The narrative is broken up into smaller goals: get to a nearby…

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

One of the highest paid screenwriters of all time, Shane Black burst onto the scene in 1987 with the quintessential buddy cop movie Lethal Weapon and went on to write The Long Kiss Goodnight, Iron Man 3, and the underrated Last Action Hero. However, his greatest success thus far is his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (although based on its trailers, spiritual sequel The Nice Guys could certainly usurp that position). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a self-aware satire of noir and crime movies, and it’s easy to understand how Black grew to justify his paycheck. The script is filled with witty, fast-paced dialogue, a fourth wall–shattering narrator, and entertaining action sequences and suspense, and it somehow maintains and ratchets the suspense and tension while remaining hilarious throughout. The script itself is an entertaining read that embraces all of Black’s narrative quirks. Take, for example, the bottom of page 54: In another…

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