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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

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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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,…

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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…

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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….

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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…

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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…

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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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