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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

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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American Crime Story – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Pretty much everyone knows the O.J. Simpson story, and even those who don’t probably have an opinion. As one character says later in the series, “You couldn’t get away with this plot twist in an airport paperback,” and that line serves as a perfect encapsulation of the spectacle as a whole. From the Bronco chase to the fame-hungry witnesses, a racist LAPD officer, and Johnny Cochran’s infamous “if it doesn’t fit” line, the O.J. Simpson case had so many twists and turns that it might as well have been a soap opera. And for most, it was. The media coverage of the trial was unprecedented, with the Bronco chase and the verdict receiving huge television ratings (at least 95 million people watched each), and the trial all but created reality shows. But in the frenzy surrounding the case, people forgot why there was a case in the first place: O.J….

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Inside Out – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Pixar is synonymous with imagination and ingenuity. Each of their (so far) 16 feature films and numerous shorts depict wildly inventive worlds with well-defined, lived-in characters that rival most live-action characters. It’s easy to imagine a blander version of Inside Out, one in which Riley’s emotions simply provide a running commentary on the her interactions. However, that’s not how Pixar operates, and the creative team (which includes Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley) has included many elements that writers everywhere which they had thought of first. Inside Riley’s head, we see a literal Train of Conscience, a building of Abstract Thought, and the prison-like Subconscious, among other clever flourishes. However, the world would be nothing without the characters. In the world of Inside Out, five emotions (Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness) control everything creature on Earth, from humans down to cats and dogs. The movie focuses…

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Casual – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

The downside to this Golden Age of TV is that almost every television channel, streaming service, and website that has even a tangential connection to the film industry produces original, scripted content, and the majority of those series are quite good. In fact, the vast quantity of quality shows has caused the more cynical, DVR-half-empty viewers to dub this “Peak TV,” as if the television market is a bubble on the verge of bursting. But if Casual, which just completed its freshman season, is a omen of television to come, the Golden Age still has many years left of quality programming to come. Casual, created by Zander Lehmann and produced by Jason Reitman, centers on newly-divorced Valerie, her brother, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, all living in the same house and all pursuing “casual” relationships. Each character has their own (plural) issues, and each is played to perfection by an amazing cast. Michaela Watkins (Enlightened, They Came Together) as Valerie is great as…

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

One of the best dramas last year was also one of the funniest comedies. However, the emotional aspects only worked because the movie is so funny. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own book and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, but the film came and went unnoticed when it was released. And it’s not hard to see why: It’s got all the quirk of Little Miss Sunshine, but one of its principle characters is a 17-year-old girl dying of leukemia, Rachel. On top of that, the main character Greg (he’s the “me” in the title) only hangs out with her because his mom’s making him. So yeah. In a way, you could describe Me and Earl as the anti–Fault in Our Stars. While the latter exists for the sole purpose of manipulating its audience into crying (and, for the most part, works), Me and…

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Fargo – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Fargo the movie is a classic. The Coen brothers’ crime/comedy captivated critics and audiences alike with a tale of pettiness, greed, kidnapping, murder, a woodchipper, and Minnesotan accents. Any attempt to bring the film to television would have giant shoes to fill, so it’s no surprise that 18 years passed before Fargo the series premiered on FX. (*A pilot was filmed in 1997 with Kathy Bates directing and Edie Falco starring, but the show never made it to series and, unlike Fargo-FX, had no involvement from the Coens.) Noah Hawley, the show’s creator and showrunner, abandons the Coens’ characters and plot but has nonetheless crafted a series that’s unmistakably Fargo. The setting, the humor, the boldfaced based-on-a-true-story lie, and, of course, the glorious accents all remain intact, and each of the (so far) two seasons focuses on borderline-incompetent criminal newbies getting mixed up with career criminals and resilient, small-town law enforcement. Just like the film. In fact, Hawley so perfectly captures the spirit of the original movie that…

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Ex Machina – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Ex Machina feels like an anomaly: it’s a tense, effects-driven sci-fi film made on an indie budget without an action sequence in sight. In his directorial debut, writer/director Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd) borrows from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Frankenstein, the myth of Prometheus, and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to create a unique, visually stunning film that is as thought-provoking as it is beautiful to look at. The movie follows Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a computer programmer tasked with studying a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and determining whether she’s sufficiently human. Garland adds an element of mystery to the plot, with Ava’s creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) manipulating Caleb throughout, and once Nathan’s manipulations become clear, the film’s central question morphs from “How human is Ava?” to “Who’s deceiving whom, and to what extent?” The latter question is the one that ultimately drives the film’s tension. Like all great stories in the genre, the typical sci-fi…

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Life In Pieces – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Television has become a mecca for creativity. Nowadays, almost every company that has any connection to the entertainment industry (including E!, Amazon, Yahoo, Xbox, and even AOL) has produced or is producing original scripted series, and as a result, there is an unprecedented number of outlets for TV writers. But the higher demand makes it harder to stand out—now, when a network releases a new show, there’s a good chance another network’s already working on something very similar. In order to catch the network’s attention, original ideas have become an even greater necessity. Without a unique twist, there is little chance of going to series. Suffering from the same pitfalls as most family shows, Life In Pieces does not have the most original characters or plotlines, but the show’s conceit helps distinguish it from Modern Family and Parenthood: each episode is divided into four short stories. So instead of Modern Family‘s approach of intertwining the lives of the extensive Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan throughout each…

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The Lego Movie – Screenplay

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Usually, we post final drafts of scripts to give writers good examples of what to do, but that’s ignoring the most necessary, and oftentimes grueling, process: rewriting. Rewriting isn’t an exact science, if by science you mean banging your head against the keyboard and furiously hitting backspace. It’s also incredibly difficult. In most first drafts, writers are still finding the characters and themes, and by the end of it, the plot they initially envisioned may no longer support the themes or characters they ended up falling in love with. Changing one element in Act One is like pulling a thread from a sweater: you never know how long the thread’s gonna be, and there’s no way of knowing until you’re done pulling. But everyone has to rewrite. Even the professionals. The vast majority of this Lego Movie script, written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who currently have two of the best track records in Hollywood (Exhibit A,…

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True Detective – Pilot

By | Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Anthology television has seen a resurgence recently, with such series as American Horror Story, Fargo, and American Crime leading the way, but no series has made as much of a cultural and critical impact as True Detective. Although season two has not been as well-received (the consensus at Script Pipeline is it’s still very good, but needlessly complex), the first season deserves all the praise critics and audiences heaped upon it. Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle popularized the detective genre with C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, respectively, and Agatha Christie perfected it with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. In the decades since, thousands of writers have contributed to the constantly growing genre (in every medium imaginable—TV, film, graphic novels, even podcasts), making it harder and harder for authors to standout. But True Detective succeeded where others failed due to its uniqueness. The show’s first season follows Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart as they investigate a…

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