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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.

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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Gone Girl – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

One of the most debatable points in screenwriting: “The book was better. . . .” Of course the book was better. The book is always (well, sometimes) better. Because it’s a book. There are few rules in novel writing as far as plot and structure. No length or budget restrictions. Characters are explored and detailed to exhaustion, and the audience–the reader–becomes more emotionally invested. It’s one thing to sit in front of a screen, it’s another to bear the imaginative burden of conjuring up images by yourself. The typical result is a deeper, satisfying experience. But it’s nearly impossible for films to stay entirely true to their literary counterparts (unless audiences are receptive to a seven-hour time commitment, and that sounds dreadful). So the screenwriter takes the source material and adapts–in every sense of the term. It’s no terrible surprise, then, that adoring fans of Gone Girl the novel became ardent critics…

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Collateral – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

In a way, one of the more underrated, or at least slightly-less-than-discussed, screenplays in the genre. Collateral encompasses most every element you need–er, prefer–in an action/thriller. A ticking clock, high stakes, an innocent protagonist we can pull for, a “heartless” and dangerous villain. . . . Screenwriting 101, right? But Stuart Beattie’s script is a richly-layered psychological study of character (yes, really) as much as it is a popcorn crime tale. As the story behind the story goes, apparently Beattie came up with the idea, or at least the seeds of the idea, when he was 17. A classic “what if __?” scenario that developed into a treatment, followed by a script, and the final product, which apparently hardly resembles its original incarnation. A testament to the screenwriting process in itself, by the way–rare is it when a writer’s first draft, or initial concept, sees the light of a projector. When reading this…

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Modern Family – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Stylistically, Modern Family seemed to catch the tail end of the declining “documentary-style” format. Creatively, it’s held its place as one of the best sitcoms on television. One can accredit this rather noble network tenure to a variety of factors, not the least of which is a well-assembled cast flirting with television hall-of-fame status. But when you circle back to the core appeal of Modern Family and its glimpse into presumably typical American households, you’re left with the writing. Not necessarily bold, by definition, nor risqué. Nor generic or cliché. It’s merely “there.” Unapologetic and ordinary. Humor in the pilot episode feels seamless without falling into the trap of many network comedies inclined to spell everything out (“We’re being different! Look, look!”) or forcing one-liners without purpose. Maybe it does go back to style, the idea that we’re casual observers into the daily conflicts of three different families united only by blood relation. Like…

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Awake – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Yes, it only lasted one season, but for fans of the 2012 NBC show Awake, it started off with a spectacular pilot episode–and one worth reading for aspiring TV writers. With a network landscape inundated with procedural dramas, a refreshing take on the genre was a next-to-impossible task. But the unique spin was such an original hook: a detective living disparate realities after a deadly car accident, one where his wife survived and one where his son survived, must figure out how to resolve this seemingly mental disparity while juggling his career and life in two separate worlds. What producer wouldn’t want to read that script? Again, a project that hits the “familiar-yet-different” zone, making for what must have been an easy pitch. Conceptually, though, it would have been equally as simple to ruin the plot. Two timelines? Two interrelated stories? The same protagonist leading different lives in a procedural crime/drama? Seems like a structural nightmare….

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Dallas Buyers Club – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Often, a film cannot realize its potential without flawless casting–and such is the case with Dallas Buyers Club. But across a current landscape of adaptations, big-budget action, low-budget horror, remakes, remakes of remakes, and derivative premises meant solely to entertain, the McConaughey drama serves as proof that digging deeper into a story and its themes, its narrative heart, will result in something special. Throughout a screenplay that prides itself on a plain, unabashed glimpse into the relationships between vividly-drawn characters, co-writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack serve up what is arguably a masterpiece. Incredibly well-written for its genre, it’s one that may serve as a model for all that comes after. Yes, films are nothing without incredible actors. Yet incredible actors are nothing without a bold script that pushes dramas to an almost hypnotic level. Read the Dallas Buyers Club Screenplay

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Mad Men – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

It’s a show that defines an era. Only not our era. Mad Men drips with glossy 1960s charm–or shameless 1960s indulgence, depending on your perspective. A soap opera, ironically, for the 21st century. The series perhaps over-dramatizes the evolution of the mid-century advertising world, but offers something in terms of unique character development that breaks our notion of what to expect in a period drama. If you’re a part of its fan base, you have the benefit of retrospect when reading the pilot, and will immediately recognize how well Don Draper is established from the start, setting us up perfectly for what will be an intimate and profound character arc. Is Mad Men nothing more than an exaggeration? A hyperbole of those living in the most tumultuous decade of the modern era? Sure. But it’s the type of grounded glamorization that rips it out of the cliche, a style we…

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Game of Thrones – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

For the lavish, and often-times hopelessly brutal, HBO show Game of Thrones, the pilot is surprisingly rather timid–a word no fan would quickly associate with the most epic television series in recent memory. The writing is direct and descriptive, lacking unnecessarily flourish, yet maintains a vivid sense of time and place without falling into the common trap of many period (or pseudo-period) pieces: overwritten narrative description and equally overwritten dialogue. Not the case here. It’s a script that’s accessible to the most casual of script readers, a remarkable achievement given what must have been a knee-jerk inclination to glean too much from the George R.R. Martin spectacle. There are, of course, many ways to successfully pull off a script of this nature, stylistically speaking. But for such a sprawling fantasy/adventure, introducing us to Westeros in the most straightforward way possible without losing the unique energy of the plot is a…

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Homeland – Pilot

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

Not only a stellar example of plotting and character setup, the script is a paradigm for style–quick-paced, vividly detailed, and absolutely compelling from scene to scene. Claire Danes’ incredible talent as an actress, the character of Carrie Mathison is so uniquely drawn, she almost carries the series on her back, creating a refreshing take on the genre. A female protagonist who is neither an over-the-top stereotype, nor what has soon become a 21st century cliche: putting the focus on a woman cast as a hero previously reserved for males. Because that’s not what this story is about. And this realism (or apparent realism) brings a certain authenticity to the first episode, setting a suitable framework for the tone of the series. As great as its predecessors were (24, most notably), this is a political action/thriller for the next generation, a rare example where, judging by the pilot alone, it’s no…

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Sideways – Screenplay

By Essential Reading - Screenplays and Pilots

On the surface, it’s a story about relationships and useless babbling about wine. Beneath the surface, it’s one of the most relevant character studies in the history of dramedies, touching upon so many issues plaguing the modern human condition it’s like one, big cinematic therapy session. In a way, Sideways changed how audiences perceived independent film as a whole–that “indies,” for whatever definition you prescribe, can be the best of both worlds. While the film is not quite a romantic comedy, there’s an underlying idea here that romance is, by definition, imperfect. So are careers, and marriages. And life. Yes, that’s all obvious. And a little stale. But the way Alexander Payne and Rex Pickett detail these two men, Miles and Jack, as wayward heroes who are neither heroic nor anti-heroic lends a certain realism to the whole story, and in the process, sort of skews the genre. Each scene…

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