I dove into several of the selected Black List scripts this weekend and before long, I found one that I was really, really into. When you're reading professionally, you find yourself getting impatient a lot. As such, most readers develop the habit of glancing at the page number, as if to ask, "I'm only here? How much longer do I have to go?" Before long, one spots a correlation - the lower the page number is the first time you check, the less into the script you are. Similarly, if the reader keeps checking the page number, it's like looking at one's watch in a movie - they're clearly not into it. So it's not unusual to be checking the page number well before page 10, given the relative quality of what I read.
The first time I looked at the page number with H8RZ (HATERS) was on p. 28. And I didn't check it frequently after that. I selected the script because its logline "The lone survivor of a massive school explosion is held against his will while the administration, police and school board appointed lawyer sift through a story of blackmail, cyber-bullying, and murder, to try to figure out exactly what happened" sounded compelling. The script solidly lived up to the promise in that premise, but that's not the first thing that set this apart. No, a big reason why this screenplay stood out was the sheer quality of the writing. Even when the descriptive paragraphs weren't lean, the writing flowed amazingly well. Scene transitions were excellent and you could just feel that you were in the hands of writers who knew what they were doing.
If I put this in a stack with 8 other scripts I read from work and asked five people to read ten pages of each script and then select the one with the strongest writing, I have little doubt this would win hands-down.
Unfortunately I don't get to play kingmaker here because I didn't learn until after I selected this script that writers Derrick Borte and Daniel Forte are already repped by Doug MacLaren at ICM Partners and Amotz Zakai at Echo Lake Management. Borte, who directed THE JONESES, is attached as director as well. The logline had my attention so strongly that I probably would have given it a read even if I'd known this beforehand, but I understand if people are disappointed that it wasn't a total amateur that I'm singling out first.
But there are two important things to take from this - the first is that I could instantly see a difference in the quality of the writing versus the other submissions I had already read. That kind of gives you an idea about how high the bar might be. It also speaks to how many readers can tell if a script has "it" almost immediately. The other thing of note is that these guys already have reps and a director and they still think there's something the Black List can do for them.
But let's get back to the script. As the logline promises, it starts in the aftermath of an explosion at school that has claimed several lives. Only one of the involved students is in any condition to give a statement - a foster kid named Mitchell. Another student is in critical condition and clings to life. The principal's biggest concern is the lawsuit that Mitchell will be able to file against the school since he was injured on their property. He wants the school board rep, Laura Sedgewick, to interview Mitchell about what led up to the explosion. Basically, her job is to find a way to get Mitchell to incriminate himself so when every lawyer in the state calls this kid, he has no grounds for a lawsuit.
(I admit the logic of some of this felt dubious to me. If the lawsuit is the big concern, than why not fear wrongful death suits from the parents of other kids on the scene? The idea might be that Mitchell will say something that makes all the students culpable in their own demise, but I still feel like just implicating Mitchell isn't enough to make those legal issues go away.)
Thus this leads to most of the narrative being told in flashback form, starting with an incident where Mitchell and four other students are disciplined for cheating on a test. The writers do an efficient job of using this scene to establish the group dynamics, underlining that the other four are a lot more privileged than Mitchell. Jack and Carla are the popular couple, with Carla being the type A sort of person who freaks out when she's in trouble. And then there are slacker goof-offs Cameron and Ricky.
This cheating scam could spell doom for all of their post-high school dreams, but Cameron comes up with an idea about how to alter multiple permanent records so that their grades will place them on top. In short, the solution to getting caught cheating is to basically cheat on an even grander scale. The nuts and bolts of this are fairly clever. There's just one problem - someone finds out and starts blackmailing them.
The mysterious blackmailer uses the name "Brittany Tammand" - who was a former student who recently took her own life after being bullied and humiliated relentlessly. Before long, "Brittany" is sending the fivesome on errands for her that include creating false IDs, fraud and embezzlement. The tension builds as the gang tries to figure out who's pulling the strings and there's a major twist late in the script that I didn't see coming at all.
That the script has the balls to go as far as it does is a refreshing surprise. It sent me back through the script to see if there were any obvious holes. In doing so, I realized something else - the script didn't NEED this twist in order to secure my recommendation. Even without it it has all the essentials one looks for in a screenplay: strong pacing, unexpected twists, and vivid, interesting characters.
It's no mean feat to balance five main characters (plus various supporting antagonists) and keep them distinct. The script manages that in a way that gives many of the actors a great deal to work with. I'd love to see who ends up being cast in these parts, but more importantly, I think some of these roles offer great opportunities for unknown actors to establish themselves with these parts. Certain elements will almost certainly play better coming from fresh faces who are free of the baggage of other parts. If it was my film, I'd probably cast more recognizable faces as the adults and attempt to assemble fresh faces as my teen cast.
The other advantage of fresh faces is that they're often cheaper, and this is a film that doesn't need a huge budget to be successful. I'm also very optimistic that if the film can live up to the script, this would be a movie that people will be talking about with their friends after they see it. It's that small indie movie that everyone seems to be telling you to see and you don't understand why until you finally cave in and later exit the theatre saying, "Got it."
I'm giving this a 9. It's one of the best scripts I've seen on the Black List site and I hope it gets some attention. As these writers are already repped, I don't know if there's much I can reasonably expect to come from this review, but I certainly wish them well. I'd love to hear from the writers and get a better sense of what they hope my endorsement can do for them considering they've already got solid reps pushing their material out there.
(I'm sure there are people who will take issue with the fact that the first script I endorsed from this bunch is also the one that happens to be repped by a major agency. I admit I wish I had discovered more of an unknown, but in my career, I've passed on plenty of agency submissions. I'm pretty sure I've passed on stuff submitted by Doug MacLaren, for that matter. So the ICM association doesn't really enter into my rating at all.)
Those of you with Black List access can find H8RZ (HATERS) here.
This is only the beginning. I haven't read all of the eight submissions, but among the scripts I have read so far, there is one more that deserves some notice. Due to the holiday slowdown this week, I'm going to hold that review for next Monday. If there are further scripts deserving of notice, they also will get the spotlight next week.