Thursday, August 7, 2014

Read Brian Scully's MERCIFUL on The Black List. I gave it a 10!

Update: I should have mentioned this -  Brian Scully is repped by Kathy Muraviov at the Muraviov Company. Industry pros who aren't members of the Black List should be able to get a copy through her.

I almost never give out a RECOMMEND when I do coverage. Usually there's at least some cause for caution. Even the most impressive scripts might find themselves hit with the more face-saving "CONSIDER" rating just to avoid being seen as an over-reach.

But last fall, Brian Michael Scully asked me to take a look at his new script MERCIFUL once he had finished a draft.  I'd been a fan of Scully's writing since his earlier spec COUNTERPOINT and having gotten to know him since then, I knew he was a smart guy. COUNTERPOINT was very good, a solid Consider if not a Strong Consider, so I knew I'd be reading something interesting at least.

I wasn't prepared for it to be exemplary.  It was one of those scripts where I found myself insanely jealous of the writing.  He took chances. It was dark and grim, but never losing sight of its emotion and humanity. I'm used to reading friends' scripts and either nitpicking or writing up notes that are basically "This is how I might deal with this issue."

He had the balls to write a post-apocalyptic story centering on a woman in her 40s and it worked so well for the story, I couldn't bear to give the standard note of, "Is there any way this could be a man in his 20s or 30s?"

The Logline: A mother risks life and limb in a cross-country journey across a hostile post-apocalyptic America to find her daughter.

I feel like any attempt at coverage is going to be inadequate, so I'm just going to reprint the email I sent to Brian last year after I read it.

I have to say that if this is your first draft, it's gotta be one of the strongest first drafts I've ever read. You do an amazing job of creating a complete world here. From the opening onward I really can sense the texture in the setting, even as you (wisely) keep some of the specifics of what led to the catastrophe off-screen. Honestly, as effective as I found the flashbacks to be, it occurred to me that they would probably be the first thing to be cut in the name of keeping the budget down. (I don't want to put on my "Development" hat on too much here, but it DID occur to me that a film with a 40 year-old woman protagonist would be a lot easier sell without the expensive meteorite scenes. On the other hand, I really like the writing of those scenes, so don't make any cuts until someone with money says "We need to lose this.")

One thing that really impressed me is how visual the writing is. There are long stretches of this script that are essentially "silent." This is not "radio with faces" as Joss Whedon would say. You've got a very strong template here for a director to come in and play (oh, there I go again.) More than that, you've got a lot of fantastic scenes here like [REDACTED]'s death. Hell, that whole sequence of events from the start up to [REDACTED]'s death could almost be a short film in its own right.

Here's the biggest compliment I can give: there were multiple instances where you delivered a scene I didn't see coming at all. One of the earliest examples: that scene with the old man. I figured he'd just let her go on her way in peace. I didn't expect him to press the attack after she confronted him and I certainly didn't think we'd see our heroine kill an old man. In terms of function, that moment reminded me a lot of the end of Act One in TAKEN, where Liam's only link to the kidnappers runs smack into a bus and we're left to wonder, "Oh shit! What now?"

p. 40 - everything leading up to this confrontation is incredibly tense and the payoff doesn't disappoint.

The Amy/Sheena stuff is handled pretty well throughout, but one of the early standouts is the scene where they watch the guys with the guns execute the wandering group. Sheena's impulse is to help, while the more hardened Amy knows that it won't do any good and they'd just end up dead themselves. Sequences like this go a long way to making this world feel dangerous and unlike our own and it's really interesting to see that Amy is somewhat resigned to it, merely doing what she can to stay alive. Without dwelling on it too much, I like the bonding between them, particularly the gun lesson and the later discussion where Sheena rattles off all the things she won't get to experience.

p. 73 - it's incredibly hard to write a monologue like that and have it work on the page. Somehow you pulled it off. I'm not even forced to guess "Well, I'm sure it'll work when the actor says it." It works HERE.

p. 76 - Like I said on twitter, I think the brutality here is the one instance where you go too far.

The whole rockslide thing is horrifying, but even more of a gut punch is the handsqueeze on the next page as [REDACTED] dies. Fuck you, you bastard. You killed her.

The third act is a bit of a shift from the others, but I like the long scenes showing off the desolation in Philadelphia. Also, with all the bleakness earlier, by now we're concerned that you might lead us to a dark ending where [REDACTED].

I think the challenge of the last 15 pages or so is that you're dealing in a story that can't really have a truly happy ending. The world is hellish and surviving is a victory in and of itself. I think you're right to structure it so that we get our closure from [major plot points REDACTED]. The last raid give us a shot of adrenaline before the final quiet and I think that's written rather effectively. (I read a lot of action scenes and this felt more brutal than most of them, despite being on a smaller scale.)

Look, I don't have any major notes. I thought that on a second pass something would leap out at me, but I honestly found it easy to accept the story on its own terms. It's a great piece of writing.

I don't often give 10s on the Black List site. This was one of them. You can find the script here. Industry pros with download permission, I implore you to check it out.

I was so blown away by Brian's writing that I was concerned I'd be embarrassing myself when I gave him my own spec TOBY IS NOW FOLLOWING YOU to read. I don't know if I ever felt as relieved or elated when I opened a later email from him to find him utterly raving about TOBY.  Good reviews are nice, but good reviews from people whose writing you respect? That'll put you over the moon.


  1. I just read this, and I find myself jazzed up to get back into the swing of things and try again. I've been trying to get my foot in the door since I was sixteen (now twenty-one, having my next birthday in November). Pauline Kael, may she toast somewhere very warm, had the right of it when she said Hollywood was the only town where a writer could die of encouragement. When your main cheerleaders are family, friends, and well-meaning acquaintances, it does get easy to sink into the slough of despair and perhaps even inflict self-doubt on yourself. (This is why most big-name writers have a hide like a rhinoceros--at least in public.) Not the point. In any case, I have some hope again. So, thank you.

  2. Yay... *Another* Post-Apocalypse American road trip screenplay. How original. Does it have clones, zombies and/or vampires?

  3. An enormous degree of gratitude at the generosity and kindness offered towards the script. Far, far too kind. Don't even really know what to say besides that. And thank you.

  4. Excited to read the script (loved Brian's other script I read) but this praise sounds more like just one friend patting another on the back than anything genuine.

    Which is fine, but it also raises a question--

    Is there something to be said about "career" readers and their actual worth to the system? Studios and prodcos depend on career readers because they can absolutely weed out 99 percent of the crap, but most all of those career readers are aspiring writers, and isn't there an inherent flaw in having a longtime reader/failed writer dictate which scripts are worth passing up the line? I don't mean to put the spot on you or Brian's script (which I haven't read) but after all, if career readers knew what a good script entails, they would have moved on from being a reader a long time ago and never would've become a career reader, no?

    1. Hey Jonah, if you don't know what you're talking about, kindly keep your mouth shut.

      "Just one friend patting another on the back" is FAR from the truth. I've read the scripts of a fair number of people you might recognize from the screenwriting blogopshere, plenty of people who DID put their scripts on the Black List and while I might have rated them and while I might have even tweeted support for them, I did not give any of them a 10, nor did I spotlight them here.

      The simple reason for my spotlight post on Brian's script is this: it was a damn good script and it deserves all the help it can get.

      "if career readers knew what a good script entails, they would have moved on from being a reader a long time ago and never would've become a career reader, no? "

      And here's where I'm tempted to say "go fuck yourself." There are plenty of people who took years to "break in" and plenty of talented writers who spent years trying to get that first sale even after getting repped on their talent. And until that point, people need to pay the bills. Is that okay with you, Jonah? Do you think screenwriters are swimming in cash even after their first sale or option?