Scrubbed

scrubbing imagesToday’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:

WESLEY
(to Floss)
What else do you think we can do in
the meantime?

Floss leans back in his chair.

FLOSS
We’re going to pay Hong’s medical
bills.

WESLEY
What do you mean? His physical
therapy? Medicine?

FLOSS
Everything.

WESLEY
EVERYTHING?

FLOSS
Everything. And, when he’s well
enough to come back, he gets a
promotion.

WESLEY
But … promoted to WHAT? I mean,
there’s no other openings in his
department.

FLOSS
Make a new position, uh,
Executive-something-something. I
don’t care what you call it. Just
… double his salary.

It takes more definite shape on page 46:

CURTIS
I agree. The guy fucks up his own
suicide, and gets a raise. I can’t
even afford a new tire for my car.

Beat.

MICHAEL
You know, I’ve read about this.
People who try to kill themselves
and survive. They end up with a
huge income after.

CURTIS
What? How does that happen?

MICHAEL
People feel sorry for them, I
guess. They suddenly have
attention and therapy and medical
resources they never had.

CURTIS
I guess that’s what’s happening to
old One-Ball Hong now.

MICHAEL
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.

CURTIS (V.O.)
“Non-fatal suicide attempts elicit
attention, resources and care from
others, enhancing their economic
prospects.”

He quickly and attentively studies a few pages.

CURTIS (V.O.)
“Hard suicide attempts are
initially associated with a 44 PER
CENT increase in income.”

He turns a few more pages.

CURTIS (V.O.)
“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:

CURTIS
Really?

DONNA
Yes. I used to work at the
Toxicology department at the
downtown Center.

CURTIS
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:

JAZ
So tell me more about yourself.

CURTIS
Like what? There’s not much to
tell.

JAZ
Well … anything.

Curtis shrugs.

JAZ (CONT’D)
Well, for starters; you said you
live with your mom, right?

CURTIS
Yeah.

Pause.

JAZ
And?

CURTIS
And what?

JAZ
So, how did that happen? What’s
the story?

CURTIS
It’s … nothing.

JAZ
Oh come on, there’s nothing to be
embarrassed about.

CURTIS
She’s sick. That’s all.

JAZ
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s
wrong with her?

Pause.

CURTIS
I’d rather not talk about it.

JAZ
Okay.

She pulls into a parking spot that is on the side the A.T. &
Love building and turns off the ignition.

JAZ (CONT’D)
So then, tell me about you.

Pause. Curtis shrugs. Silence.

JAZ (CONT’D)
Do you always talk this much?

CURTIS
I just don’t like talking about
myself.

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:

CURTIS
Our medical claim is about to be
GRANTED.

He continues typing.

CURTIS (CONT’D)
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:

WESLEY (CONT’D)
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.

CURTIS
What?! Why?

WESLEY
I don’t think you should be
employed here AT ALL.

CURTIS
Why do you hate me so much?

WESLEY
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,
“esprit d’corps?”

Curtis shakes his head.

WESLEY (CONT’D)
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
basis.

CURTIS
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

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10 responses to “Scrubbed

  1. Thank you so much for the kind words, and the very THOROUGH review.

    I appreciate the advice given, and will definitely work on fleshing out certain aspects of the story a bit more.

    “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…”

    That wasn’t quite what I had meant for the script to mean; and I blame myself for not being able to successfully articulate it. I suppose it’s more along the lines of “no man is an island.” Curtis is closed off and shut-in throughout the story. It isn’t until he loses the promotion that he finally opens up and unleashes his thoughts and fears to Wesley near the end. This in turn, causes Wesley to reconsider his harshness… so although, as written, it seems that it was just by random chance that Wesley changes his mind at the right time, it was intended to be as a result of Curtis’s actions.

    I’ll have to refine the work some more, and will definitely heed the suggestions you’ve provided with regard to story beats and description.

    Thank you again for the encouragement and guidance. Keep those excellent reviews coming, they’re a wonderful way to learn!

    • Thank you for the comments on the review. Interacting with the author is the best way I know to improve my reviewing skills. I can measure my interpretation against the author’s intention, and then make less mistakes in the future.

      There is nothing better in the writing world than an author who wants to improve. Safe to say, we both fit in that class.

      Thanks again for the opportunity to review your work.

  2. Hey congratulations to the writer, from the review it sounds like an interesting premise.

    And I am happy to see this blog expanding to include reviews of amateur material. It would be ideal if the scripts could be hosted or linked to facilitate discussion.

    • Thanks, Walker; If Joel is able to host the script, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it in this instance. Would love to read more discussion.

    • Only if it not too much trouble. In this case you could just email me the script, with Mr. Lexicon’s permission. But if you are going to make this a regular thing then hosting the scripts would make sense, and hopefully increase traffic and active participation.

      • It’s been a while since I’ve used sendspace, but I don’t think it’ll be that much trouble. Also, if okay with the author, I’ll email it to you. I’ll check into that one.

  3. Hey EL,

    I found the script to be entertaining and a quick clean read at only 89 pages. I was engaged and wanted to find out how it would all work out. As Joel notes in his review, the characters are well-drawn and adequately differentiated, and some of the dialogue, particularly the office banter, is convincing and amusing. You set and maintain an appropriately comic tone, and the style is unobtrusive and agreeable.

    The premise raises a lot of interesting questions and possibilities about identity in the digital age, and I was a little disappointed that these were not explored more as a theme and subplot. I thought the hacker-gets-a-job setup was good enough, even though we have seen it before. The concept of profiting from a failed suicide attempt has some plausibility issues but if handled deftly and quickly in a comic context it can work.

    You do a good job of making the main character sympathetic, but he still at times seems a bit of a passive sad-sack. I think more scenes with the girl Jaz, and a more traditional romantic B story arc for those two, might have the effect of making him more attractive to the audience.

    The third act scene where he explicitly admits in a recording that he is killing himself in order to secure life insurance benefits for his mother is a problem. Most if not all life insurance policies have exclusions in cases of suicide and they don’t pay out.

    I found the fact that everything turns on Wesley’s unexpected change of heart a bit unsatisfying. I see now that you laid a little groundwork for that earlier in the story, but it seems almost a Deus ex machina and crucially, it takes the agency of the story out of the protagonist’s hands at the most important moment. I think you should consider the possibility of keeping Wesley as a straightforward villain, you do a good job of setting him up that way. Then have Curtis be forced to find a way to become active and thwart him, perhaps with the help of Jaz, and maybe Michael, another underutilized character.

    Fleshing out a B-story and reworking the third act might seem a tall order, but there are enough possibilities in the comedy and the more serious themes that I think it would be worth the effort. With a perfect execution and a more traditional structure I could see something along these lines getting made.

    Good job and best of luck going forward.

    walker

    • Thank you for the comments, walker. It seems like there are points of agreement between our takes– on both the strengths, and opportunities.

      It’s also worth noting that this is the most read review I’ve published this year. This convinces me there is a high demand for analyzing the scripts of unrepped writers.

      I’ll look into trying to get more writers interested in this process, and setting up an online storage account for access to the scripts.

    • Hi Walker, thanks so much for the kind words and excellent advice. It’s such a wonderful thing, receiving unbiased opinions and thoughts on one’s work. The only way to truly improve! I’m indebted to you and Joel.

      I would love to see the amateur review discussion of this site gain momentum.

      I did have worries about the “Deus ex machina” aspect of the climax. I’ve been re-writing the third act over the last few days, I can say that the suggestions provided by yourself and Joel have already improved this story tremendously.

      There is also one common thought that is shared by everyone who has read this script: they want more of Jaz. This is interesting. I wonder if this is due to the character, or the developing story line? Is it because people want to see the relationship sub-plot unfold, or because she a compelling character? She will definitely be featured more prominently in the next draft; while avoiding the “Manic Pixie Dream-Girl” that Joel has so often admonished for good reason.

      Very much appreciated,
      EL

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