Today’s script review comes from a writer who has followed this blog through both its instantiations. A series of wildly irregular dominoes fell into line recently which culminated in my suggesting that he allow me to review his script as the first [in what I hope is a long line] of “amateur” reviews. He graciously accepted.
What I hope to accomplish with this blog is long-winded and not worth getting into right now. However, the cornerstone of what I intend is short and sweet:
I would like to help screenwriters bind together to be advocates for other screenwriters.
I want to do this because I believe that good movies, necessarily, grow from good scripts. I am tired of watching films which are inferior to the possibilities implied by the medium. We can, with aggregate knowledge and experience, bring real artistry to a class of objects normally excluded from being listed beneath that airy abstract noun.
In a perfect world, there would be a place to download today’s script from an internet warehouse so that notes from individual community members could be offered. I have not set that storage space up… yet. If anyone would like to offer their thoughts, I’m sure arrangements could be made in the comments section below. Of course, there are only about ten of us logging onto the site each day [right now], but someday, I hope to gather an audience large enough to produce outcomes beneficial to writers. Toward that end, today’s script, Scrubbed, is the first entry in an open ended dialogue.
Very Brief Synopsis:
Our protagonist, Curtis, lives a lonely life in which he tries to care for his critically ill mother on limited means. Desperate from her worsening condition, combined with a recent denial of continued insurance coverage, Curtis hacks into his mother’s insurance provider database, and grants her insurance claims illegally.
The company traces the activity back to him and requires him to take a job at their corporate offices… in exchange for their not prosecuting his crimes. This bargain keeps him out of jail, but does nothing to help his mother’s deteriorating situation.
Curtis’ new position requires him to “scrub” the internet of negative stories about his employer by creating a network of links falsely pointing toward positive stories about the company. The idea is to trick the search engines into prioritizing the positive stories over the negative.
A few weeks into his job, Curtis’ hard work and technical expertise have paid off—the negative results listed by search engines have faded to the second page. When Curtis’ immediate manager [Hong] attempts suicide, Curtis reasons that his job performance will put him in line for a promotion that will raise his salary to a level where he may finally be able to care for his mother’s needs.
Unfortunately, Wesley, [one of the men who “hired” Curtis after discovering his illegal activity] disagrees. The script then resolves into a vortex which catches Curtis in a painful stream of thought. Perhaps Hong had the right idea. Maybe suicide is the only way out.
When Curtis’ new work friends point out that unsuccessful suicides [like Hong’s] often result in financial windfalls for those who endure them, Curtis’ mind can’t let the idea dissipate. Is this the solution to all his problems?
And now for the five question review:
1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)
Part A) Considering this script comes with a complex premise, I feel the exposition is handled with dexterity. The only element from the synopsis which labors to fit naturally into the script is the idea that unsuccessful suicide can be financially beneficial. The idea is introduced on page 43:
What else do you think we can do in
Floss leans back in his chair.
We’re going to pay Hong’s medical
What do you mean? His physical
Everything. And, when he’s well
enough to come back, he gets a
But … promoted to WHAT? I mean,
there’s no other openings in his
Make a new position, uh,
don’t care what you call it. Just
… double his salary.
It takes more definite shape on page 46:
I agree. The guy fucks up his own
suicide, and gets a raise. I can’t
even afford a new tire for my car.
You know, I’ve read about this.
People who try to kill themselves
and survive. They end up with a
huge income after.
What? How does that happen?
People feel sorry for them, I
guess. They suddenly have
attention and therapy and medical
resources they never had.
I guess that’s what’s happening to
old One-Ball Hong now.
Oh, and people sell their stories.
Remember that guy who went over
Niagara Falls and survived?
I think both of those scenes work well in their context. Since this idea is going to be the propulsive force behind Curtis’ thinking for the second half of his script, it makes sense for him to come by it from things that happen at work. The responses of his friends and employers make sense given the plot points that have befallen them.
The idea receives full treatment, however, on page 49 when Curtis goes to:
INT. LIBRARY – DUSK
Curtis has two books under his arm as he scans the shelves.
His hand rests on a book titled “The Economics of Suicide.”
He pulls it out.
Curtis plops down onto a crusty old library chair, and flips
through the pages.
“Non-fatal suicide attempts elicit
attention, resources and care from
others, enhancing their economic
He quickly and attentively studies a few pages.
“Hard suicide attempts are
initially associated with a 44 PER
CENT increase in income.”
He turns a few more pages.
“The statistics reveal that now,
suicide can be a rational choice,
as long as the subject survives.”
Libraries are like google, newspapers, and TV Reporters, when it comes to screenplay exposition… they exist for the sole purpose of providing the audience with information which it needs in order to understand the story. By their nature, they are expository.
Our scene is in danger at this point, but I think the exposition value spikes upward farther when it turns out that Donna [a library patron seated in a nearby chair] happens to be a recently retired toxicologist. From page 51:
Yes. I used to work at the
Toxicology department at the
Now that’s interesting!
From this point, the scene evolves into a discussion of proper dosages of different medications that would ALMOST result in successful suicide. In my opinion, the combination of the naturally expository library location, and the fortuitousness of sitting beside a retired toxicologist, stall the organic feel to the development of the [financial benefits of unsuccessful suicide] idea.
As I said earlier, the script does a good job of not explaining every detail of its characters’ lives needed to understand their story. However, I do have one other issue with the dialogue. Unfortunately, it does not fit snugly into my prefabricated question about exposition, subtext, and individuation. Of the three dynamics mentioned, it aligns most closely with exposition, so we will discuss it here.
A lot of dialogue in this script is TOO realistic. In my opinion, the conversations evolve the way actual conversation in the real world would evolve.
I have always been a believer in the ability an audience has to draw unspoken dialogue from that which is spoken, and I think this script could utilize that principle more. As an example we’ll look at a scene from pages 38-39:
So tell me more about yourself.
Like what? There’s not much to
Well … anything.
Well, for starters; you said you
live with your mom, right?
So, how did that happen? What’s
It’s … nothing.
Oh come on, there’s nothing to be
She’s sick. That’s all.
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s
wrong with her?
I’d rather not talk about it.
She pulls into a parking spot that is on the side the A.T. &
Love building and turns off the ignition.
So then, tell me about you.
Pause. Curtis shrugs. Silence.
Do you always talk this much?
I just don’t like talking about
There are a lot of lines in these two pages to communicate one single idea— even when Curtis likes the person talking to him he is not going to share personal information about his life. We need this information about Curtis to be in the script but, we need it demonstrated more quickly. The scene reads like a merry-go-round. Jaz keeps asking, Cutis keeps refusing… but the circle gets no wider.
Were I today’s author, I would read through my scenes looking out for repeated subtextual beats. Give the audience a window into the soul of your character, and then use the dialogue to pry that window progressively more open.
Part B) In the preceding paragraph, I noted that the script was infused with subtext. In Scrubbed, the power highway between parent and child gets rerouted. Curtis, owing to his mother’s inability to care for herself properly, becomes the “father” of his mother. It is Curtis who feels a parent’s fear about being an inadequate provider. The subtext in the scenes between these two is very well done.
I especially liked the first seven pages. In this sequence we are treated to a series of unfortunate events which befall Curtis with regard to his mother’s health. The scenes culminate in Curtis breaking into the security system of his mother’s insurance provider. Not only do these pages establish the goal [and give it urgency] but they also make us like Curtis… because of the subtext.
The stage set between mother and son [the inversion of the usual stage] is a finished piece of this script.
Part C) I propose that character individuation is another completed element. I like the people the author wants me to like [Curtis, Jaz, Diane] and I dislike the characters the author wants me to dislike [Randall, Wesley, Floss]. The author achieves his aims because of the voice he gives to each important character in his script. This part of our craft is also well done.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out?
As I stated above, I liked the way the first few pages of this script developed. We are dealing with a protagonist that is depressed, and he is in a depressing situation. Story ideas like this are extremely hard to get moving.
Scrubbed succeeds in getting itself going because it pays off all that emotional misery. From page 6:
Our medical claim is about to be
He continues typing.
We’ll make you all better, mom.
From there, we meet Floss and Wesley. The bargain which is struck between the insurance company and our protagonist is interesting. I wanted to see where the script would take its premise.
This is not a highly engaging first ten pages, in theory. But, the story tone matches its half-asleep protagonist exactly. Because these two elements were in agreement, and because the author found a way to get me rooting for his depressed protagonist, the first ten had me wanting to read more.
3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story.
Part A) The script has enough reveals [in a quantitative sense] but it is here that my first real issue with this script will surface. I believe that Scrubbed is two stories tied together with very lose stitching.
Scrubbed Story One: Dealing with the Responsibility of a Critically Ill Parent
This is our opening focus, and is the emotional core of the script. The reveals which support this half of our story concern the battles Curtis undertakes in order to get his mother’s medical care paid for. Randall, Floss, Wesley, Michael, and Hong [until his suicide attempt] populate this story world.
Scrubbed Story Two: Dealing with the Depression which Results from Caring for a Critically Ill Parent
The fact that Curtis is depressed is easy to see throughout the script, the problem is his depression takes a very strange turn when Hong jumps out the office window. It is after this plot point that the idea of coming as close as possible to committing suicide [without succeeding] for financial gain becomes prominent.
If the current plot framework is to be maintained, I believe these two strands of story would link up more credibly if strand two were introduced earlier or, if strand two became prominent. The reason I say this is because the first 49 pages feel like a long windup to the introduction of what our actual movie premise is: close call suicide… for financial profit.
Part B) The engine of this story is: Is life worth living? Curtis’ inability to provide for the one he loves most in the world has made a mess of his opinions about the value of his own life. In his mind, since he cannot resolve the situation with his mother’s medical care, there is something wrong WITH HIM.
Rationally, he knows that corporate America and its never-ending drive for profits is the real villain, but it is much easier for him to blame himself. As soon as Curtis begins to wonder if he is worth more [almost] dead than alive, he has answered the question which drives his story.
Part C) The pinch point comes on page 72 in the following lines of dialogue:
I don’t think you’d be suitable for
the promotion. In fact, I’m going
to do everything I can to make sure
you DON’T get the promotion.
Curtis goes wide-eyed.
I don’t think you should be
employed here AT ALL.
Why do you hate me so much?
You know, I used to see this place
as an alliance. Everybody worked
towards the same ends, we all had
common goals. There was an esprit
d’corps. You ever heard that term,
Curtis shakes his head.
Didn’t think so. That sense of
brotherhood just doesn’t exist
anymore. Somewhere along the way
it became fashionable to stab each
other in the back. It’s all
selfishness now, all “me me me.”
It’s people screwing each other
over, every single chance they get.
Somehow the ambition of running a
business became secondary to
fucking each other over on a daily
What’s that got to do with me?
From here, the script funnels toward its resolution. We are increasingly certain, from this moment onward, that it is just a matter of time until Curtis gives expression to the ideas which have been circulating in him since page 49. Wesley telling him that he has no chance for the promotion is the final straw.
Part D) Theme? Let me first point out that I think Curtis’ “job” is a great metaphor for what goes on inside his mind. He is “hired” to scrub the internet of negative stories about the company he works for so that the positive stories will be more visible.
If you think of Curtis as a stand-in for the company, then you can see how life is bombarding him with positive and negative stories about himself—but the negative is getting the upper-hand. Curtis needs to be scrubbed—of depression.
Our script resolves with Curtis following through with his attempted suicide, but being saved at the last minute by a penitent Wesley. [Wesley realizes that they’ve grossly mistreated Curtis’ mother and decides to undo this mistreatment]. Curtis, now with things to live for, calls 911 and gets the help he needs to survive.
All who read this blog know that ending is going to be a tough sell for me. The reason is because it doesn’t feel like Curtis earns his life. If not for the call from Wesley, at exactly the moment Curtis is in danger of succeeding at his plan, Curtis dies.
So, I believe the author intends the theme to be:
Life is Always worth living
But I feel the script really proves that:
Sometimes, life Isn’t worth living.
I would love for the story between Jaz and Curtis to receive a fuller treatment. I believe Jaz can be the storyworld piece that brings Curtis to self-knowledge THROUGH his own actions, rather than through a chance phone call from Wesley at exactly the right moment. [If the author does go this route, he should also resist the temptation to make Jaz into a manic-pixie dreamgirl. Allow Curtis to do the work here. She shouldn’t be so wonderful that she is, by her very nature, a life raft.]
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself?
Part A) I mentioned earlier that I thought there were two strands in this story, and I think their combination [if properly weighted] would make for a very unique story. It’s like Better Off Dead meets Terms of Endearment. I would love to see a story like that get solved with a consistent tone.
Part B) The writing is polished and competent. Were I this author I would do two things. Read back through my description with an eye on my adverbs, and read back through my dialogue looking for instances where my story beat goes round and round without getting larger or smaller.
There is, however, nothing in the writing presentation that would prompt a reader to quit reading.
I also believe today’s writer does a great job with painting his tone. I mentioned earlier that I thought Curtis was a half-awake protagonist [exactly what you would expect given his depression] and the writing matches his condition perfectly. Today’s author exceeds expectations when it comes to delivering a consistent tone.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script?
It is very hard for me to endorse the message in this script, even though I LOVE the message of this script.
Life is Always worth living.
What makes this theme hard to endorse is that there is no denying that Curtis doesn’t earn this knowledge. He gets it by a perfectly timed lucky break at the hands of fate. Since this is how he avoids suicide, an audience would be left with the idea that:
Living and dying are coin tosses.
I actually think there is a lot of truth in the statement above and the author may let us know in the comments that this is what he meant for his script to mean… but the parts of the script between the mother and son, the earnestness Curtis brings to wanting to save her, should mean more than the vagaries of chance.
In other words, it may be true that we, literally, can’t escape chance, but we are most human when we try.
Rating: Not There Yet