Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"If this script is flawed, how did it end up on the Black List?"

Avishai asks:

Every once in a while, a script finishes high on the Black List and gets turned into a movie. And sometimes, that movie is panned by critics. Often, the movie is criticized for its script more than for anything else. A current example of such a movie would be Killing Season, originally titled Shrapnel, a screenplay that finished on the 2008 Black List. 

Recently, I was given a screenplay to cover as a test of my scriptreading abilities. I got the screenplay without the title page. I read it, disliked it, and made sure the coverage reflected my feelings about the story's shortcomings. After I sent in my coverage, with some internet sleuthing, I managed to discover that this particular script made the 2011 Black List and is currently in production. With more sleuthing, I found out that the script divides its readers. Some love it, some hate it. The one thing they can agree on is that the screenplay is slow and could use a rewrite or two. 

So I guess my question is twofold. One, why do imperfect (for lack of a better term; no screenplay I've ever read is perfect) screenplays finish high on the Black List? And two, do you think people are more forgiving of a mediocre script that made the list than of an equally mediocre script with no credentials? 

As to the first,  you have to understand that most of the scripts out there range from terrible to mediocre.  It's not just that a lot of scripts are bad, it's that they're blandly bad.  In that sea, a script that makes bold choices will stand out more.  Sometimes this means that the script will make choices that are polarizing.  There will be people who dislike it for being bold, perhaps in matters of sex or violence, but there will be just as many people who remember the script for having the guts to go places few scripts go - and do it well.

A good example might be LOOPER.  I thought it was a good movie, but it wouldn't have been on my Top 10 last year.  However, I know plenty of writers who named it their #1 favorite movie of last year and many of them pointed to one scene that really elevated it.

The premise is that Bruce Willis has been sent back in time and that after he escapes his past self, he sets off on a mission to kill someone who will grow up to murder Willis' wife in the future.  Of course, in this timeframe, that person would be a child and Willis unfortunately can only narrow his search down to three possible children.

So this means he not only has to kill a kid - he possibly will have to kill THREE kids to be sure he kills the right future bad guy.  That's dark stuff and most movies probably would have found a way to avoid showing their hero execute an innocent child.  And no, we don't see Willis execute a kid on screen, but the murder definitely happens.  There's no cop-out at all, no whitewash.

That's the kind of bold storytelling choice you'll find in a lot of Black List scripts - but not done in an exploitative way.  Bad scripts are brutal just for the sake of being so.  Good scripts make that kind of dark choice and give it weight.  Everything builds up to that moment and when it happens, it's awful, but it's also earned.  It's rare to see that in a script with brutal violence.

Some Black List scripts get on the list because of memorable risks like that.  Others get on there because of strong voice, heartfelt storytelling or really compelling characters.  I don't think you can point to any one factor.  What they have in common is that they stayed with those readers long after they were done with the script.

As one who reads a lot of scripts, I can tell you that 90% of them will fade from memory before too long.  When a script comes along with a truly unique hook and it's got strong writing behind it, it might not need to be flawless to earn a reader's admiration.  If the peaks are so high that they render the deficiencies moot, that could explain how it ended up on the Black List.

As to the second question, I'm sure that it can't hurt a script when a reader knows that it was on the Black List.  But I suppose there are times when it can backfire too.  I certainly have read a couple Black List scripts that I was less than impressed by. When those scripts aren't life-changingly awesome, perhaps my disappointment is more profound than with non-Black List scripts.

As an aside, I read Shrapnel long before I knew it was on the Black List and I really liked it a lot.  It's tense, well-structured and is a really engaging read.  I've seen the trailer and... I'm not expecting the same experience from the film.  But that has to do with a lot of factors outside of the script.

The bottom line is that there are a wide variety of scripts on the Black List, and the perceived flaws of each script are so different that it's mostly academic to debate if the Black List credentials cause people to be more lenient with it than if it was submitted without that.  Here's how I look at it - there had to be some concensus to get the script on the Black List in the first place.  Thus, plenty of people liked it absent that credential in the first place.

Bummer about Killing Season, though.  I really liked it back when it was just a script.


  1. Wow! Very enlightening on so many levels. And re: violence, there's a thread over on The Black Board that touches on violence and how far you take it, can you stomach it, etc. Interesting to see your take on it with words/phrases like: bold choice, polarizing, guts to go places, no cop-out/no whitewashing, not in an exploitative way...

    I'm working on 3 diff scripts (well, 2 on the backburner at the moment) and all deal with some aspect of violence (3 diff levels, actually) within the story (all are Action Thriller). No horror, nothing gratuitous or "torture porn" as you like to call it, but all necessary to support the story world and character's reality and development (or degradation), so when I read this:

    "Good scripts make that kind of dark choice and give it weight. Everything builds up to that moment and when it happens, it's awful, but it's also earned."

    it's both really inspiring and scary as fck to hope I can pull that off in each. Hell, even one.

    Anyway, it's 2:30a here in Tejas and I've been pounding away at the keys all day so this might be a total garbage comment, and for that I apologize, but I wanted to say that this post really resonated with me for some reason :) As always, thanks for sharing your Zuul-y genius with us peons on planet Un-Repped.

  2. I had the same experience with my spec THE OTHER STAR WARS over on the Black List. Half the pro readers and phantom raters gave it 8's and 9's and the other half 4's & 5's. After constructive rewrites and several inquiries from industry members, it's where it needs to be for sale but the process is extremely subjective. The great thing is the writer who follows his vision knows how to filter

  3. This may be a stupid question. Do you know if black list readers also submit scripts to be evaluated by their fellow readers?

  4. I imagine the criteria for a script on the black list is in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Thanks for answering my questions. It's an interesting perspective I haven't considered. I'll certainly keep it in mine the next time I write, or the next time I read.

  6. Just watched the Killing Season, having forgotten it as a script.
    It's a terrible film, but that's mostly down to a script so packed with male scriptwriter fantasies as to strain credibility before you get to Travolta's accent.
    Cliches included: 1. Rural woodsman fantasy 2. Can make own weapons 3. Either won a Silver star or have a family member who did (genetic military expertise!) 4. Still found time to have perfect children 6. Win the contest, but show mercy. 7. Everyone walks away fine from a major car accident in a 50 year old vehicle that has just rolled down a ravine.
    Lace with appalling Christian motifs and there it is.
    Did I mention our paunchy, yet deadly hero reads Hemingway while eating meals alone? Or that these two experienced hunters talk more than Real Housewives?

    Who was this script aimed at? Who was the audience? What was the purpose of it?

    Its a bad film, but it began as a terrible script.

    1. The problem I had with the script was the structure. I was okay with the first half. It dragged on for a bit, but there was enough dramatic irony to keep it afloat. But the second the action started, the movie ran out of ideas and basically treaded water for the remainder of the film. One guy catches the other, ties him up, tortures him, preaches on about life and war and God. The guy escapes, catches the first guy, ties him up, tortures him, preaches on about life and war and God. Then the captive escapes and etc. etc. etc. At some point, the movie ended, because it ran out of time.