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Essential Reading – Screenplays and Pilots

A curated list of produced screenplays and TV pilots chosen by Script Pipeline staff. All scripts are linked to third-party sites and are copyrighted by the original author/s. They are (obviously) for educational purposes only.

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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National Treasure – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Let’s get this out of the way up front—National Treasure is not the best movie ever made. It probably doesn’t even cut into the top 100 adventure movies. The concept deserves all the eye-rolling it generates: Benjamin Franklin Gates (yes, that’s really his name) races against a team of greedy mercenaries after discovering the Declaration of Independence boasts an invisible treasure map. However, National Treasure is just. . . fun. The creative team understood how goofy the underlying idea was (making well-placed jokes about it throughout) and played it as a tongue-in-cheek, family-friendly version of The Da Vinci Code. Substituting Christian lore with American history, scribes Cormac and Marianne Wibberley kept much of the structure intact. Gates (Nicolas Cage) jumps from city to city within the United States’ original 13 colonies, discovering clues and artifacts that both advance the treasure hunt and provide interesting tidbits of American history. The script never takes the concept too seriously, and neither does Cage or the…

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Archer – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Take James Bond. Exaggerate all his negative traits. Turn his sexism, narcissism, alcoholism, egocentrism, bachelorism all up to eleven, add in a dash of Oedipus, and you’d get Sterling Archer. Codenamed “Duchess” (the name of his mother’s deceased dog and the show’s original title), Sterling would be nothing more than an offensive 007 caricature in other hands, but creator Adam Reed deftly balances his protagonist’s not-so-appealing lifestyle by imbuing Archer with a strong sense of empathy and making sure the joke always lands on him. It also helps that Archer is one of the funniest shows on television. (Deservingly, the show has won four consecutive Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Animated Show and has been the only winner in that category since the award’s inception.) But despite inspiration from Ian Fleming, Archer never resorts to simple Bond parodies, and the show would work even if Bond never existed. The reason? Archer has the most unique comedic voice on television. The show features an odd mix of lowbrow…

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Penny Dreadful – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Named after the cheap, pulpy serials popular in nineteenth-century England, Penny Dreadful plays almost like a Victorian edition of American Horror Story but with an air of campy sophistication. The show pulls characters from classic literature, specifically Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but is still accessible to viewers unfamiliar with Gothic fiction. Everything, from the acting and writing down to the costumes and sets, is flawless, and the rare misstep still makes the series more entertaining than its peers. The show centers around Vanessa Ives, a possessed woman played by Eva Green, whose performance is currently the best on TV (she’s so good that Penny Dreadful might as well be called The Eva Green Hour). Vanessa is already in the supernatural thick-of-it, so we get a point-of-view character to introduce us to the world and the unnatural threats: the sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an America performer…

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Whiplash – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Conflict is the bedrock of storytelling. Without conflict, there is no story. And without interesting characters, there is, naturally, no real reason to care. Perhaps the best movie of 2014 (and certainly in contention for best of the decade), Whiplash not only has as much conflict as many summer blockbusters but also features two of the most interesting, intense characters in recent memory. Andrew, a music student, aspires to be the next Buddy Rich. Fletcher, his instructor, considers greatness not good enough and abuse the same as inspiration. What follows is one of the most unorthodox, fierce, intense student-teacher relationships ever brought to screen. Anchored by J.K. Simmons’ profanely brilliant performance that alternates between terrifying and hilarious, often in the same scene, Whiplash brims with conflict. Fletcher pushes Andrew further than most would willingly tolerate, but most don’t have aspirations to become legendary at any cost (even friends, family, and physical well-being). As Andrew puts it, “I’d rather die broke and…

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The Affair – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

This gem of a series seemed to fall under the radar early on. No fault of Showtime or the series creators—the cable TV landscape is, shall we say in no uncertain terms, incredible. Add this one to your list as a superlative example of how to infuse a compelling structure into a very straightforward dramatic series. Not-so-much-of-a-spoiler alert: two married people have an affair, and things eventually go bad.  Note that the writing itself in the pilot script, based on by-the-book fundamentals, could be better. In theory. But then you get deeper with dialogue and character, and suddenly it becomes clear why Sarah Treem (plus whoever else had their hand in penning the series) may be one of the best TV writers out there. You could write a dissertation on how well the series is structured, how it keeps us guessing without falling into the trap of blatant on-the-nose plotting….

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The Grand Budapest Hotel – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

If ever there was a writer/director who audiences share a love-hate relationship with. . . . Wes Anderson established a unique approach to storytelling and style early in his career (although “unique” doesn’t exactly express how distinct this technique has become, compared to the current studio-level landscape), and The Grand Budapest Hotel serves as the next iteration of his brand. But the screenplay isn’t exactly a primer for beginning writers. It’s rather long, rather wordy, and rather low-key as far as plot, even for the genre, a dramedy that, like many of his other films, almost defies a specific categorization. Novel-like in its execution. So why should you read it, especially if you’re a long-standing member of the “Wes Anderson Makes No Sense and is Terrible” club? Because of the writing. Imagine that–a screenplay worth reading because of the writing. Believe it or not, though, not all great screenplays feature great writing. Some nail the…

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