I have modified another of the old reviews to better approximate the new five question format. You can find a copy of the script on the site forums.
Today’s script and [much more importantly] today’s author, have many things to teach about one specific [possibly certain] way to break into this business. There are, of course, many available routes to Hollywood success. But of all those available routes, how many are possibly certain?
The indefatigable mantra of screenwriters and bloggers everywhere is: write a great script—a sort of “if you build it, they will come” shard of screenwriting advice wrapped in a bow of [seemingly] self-evident truth. When we are in good moods, we can all believe that Hollywood is actually the kind of meritocracy where the truth in the indefatigable mantra IS self-evident. But we are writers, so what else are we if not moody?
I still stand by, and endorse, the first rule of our shared Fight Club:
Write a great script.
What Brick did was show me that there is a first corollary to rule #1 that has demonstrated its viability so much more profoundly, that it threatens to overtake rule #1 and become the Only Rule of our Aspiring Community. You can see its result in the successes of everyone from Billy Bob Thornton to Christopher Nolan to Adam Aronofsky to Rian Johnson to… You. [If you build it.]
1st Corollary to Rule # 1:
Write a great script that can be made for 500,000 dollars or less.
After reading this script, it became plain to me why this route is so certain. If you’re unknown, and you’ve written something that will cost 40 million dollars to produce, the line of readers, actors, directors, producers, and executives who have to ALL agree that your script is [in fact] a great script is… staggering. By the end of your ordeal, your writing will have to convince ten to fifteen times the number of people that your 500,000 dollar script will be required to convince.
Yet, the return on investment formulas favor the ½ million dollar story over the 40 million dollar story EVERY TIME. In simple mathematical terms, the ½ million dollar script is 80 times less risky and 10 to 15 times more likely to attract positive attention.
The dedication involved in both routes is commensurate, but the route to a theatre favors [by humbling percentages] the ½ million dollar route.
That said, you still have to satisfy old Rule #1. You have to write a great script.
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) I probably sound like a broken record [or I did in the original draft], but this script continues the trend I’ve had lately of scripts that parcel out the exposition in small bits following a long lead-up in which no exposition is given.
I’ll use one line of dialogue from page 3 as an example to prove the whole point. [It will also end up being a spoiler.]
(blubbering, fast and
I did what she said with the brick, I
didn’t know it was bad, but the pin’s on
it now for poor Frisco and they’re
playing it all on me- (1)
That line summarizes 80 percent of the story, but it’s all unintelligible and in the code of this universe the author created. We can grasp the intent of this line, but not its meaning. Finding the magic decoder for understanding this line, is the point of the story.
10 out of 10 points.
Part B) So, the major subtextual thrust of this script revolves around the idea [dare we call it a theme] of who it is acceptable to trust:
From page 42:
BRENDAN (CONT’D) (cont’d)
Look, I can’t trust you. You ought to be
smart enough to know that. I didn’t
shake the party up to get your
attention, and I’m not heeling you to
hook you. Your connections could help
me, but the bad baggage they bring could
make it zero sum game or even hurt me,
so I’m better off coming at it clean.
From page 58:
You trust me now?
Less than when I didn’t trust you
before. If you can tell me your angle in
this, maybe I can.
From page 83:
The Pin looks up at Brendan, whose face is loose and
Maybe it’s hot, but it’s Dode, you can’t
From page 98:
Why was the last one? Cause someone got
greedy. Tug here’s had the means to
swipe half and cut it bad for a long
time. Now we’re splits my loss of
All of which get’s paid off in the summation monologue from 106. I’ll edit it for just the important part:
(omitted) …She trusts you. She wants in.
It’s duck soup.
If you focus on the characters in this script who die, you can’t help noticing that trusting someone leads directly to their deaths. The two people who don’t trust anyone [Laura and Brendan] meet in the showdown. The victor wins by outsmarting the loser, but the reason these two are the final combatants is because they didn’t give their trust out along the way.
10 out of 10 points.
Part C) I thought the character individuation was pretty good. Probably the most interesting thing about this aspect of my grading system is the already mentioned world-specific dialogue. The characters follow normal linguistic patterns in their application of this vocabulary. At times, in spite of its consistency, it was slightly off-putting.
8 out of 10 points.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
I’ve posted some thoughts before [now lost] on what I think makes the device work [when it does], but this script defied my initial thoughts and made me look at the subject a little harder.
Previously, I’d assumed that the technique rises or falls based on balancing the climactic moment blurrily between resolution and failure. A kind of, ‘don’t tip the script’s hand as to which way the climax is going to go’, design. I still believe this is one way to use the technique [if you must], but Brick didn’t do that at all. Rian Johnson’s flashforward shows us, basically, the “break into two” moment or, at the latest, the start of act 2 moment. This is a ridiculously GREAT WAY to use this [overused] technique. It allows the script to ascend to greater heights of mystery as it progresses. Our interest in the climax reengages dramatically once the flashforward inserts into the linear timeline of the story at the beginning of the second act. Where, we wonder, will the script go from here?
We end these two pages with the girl we know is going to die asking the guy we saw standing over her dead body for help. I was, hooked.
I like the next 8 pages more in retrospect than I did as I first read them. Even now, I can’t deny that the tone and the presentation of these high school characters as JUST grown-ups still seems mildly disconcerting. In my opinion, it requires vigilant resetting of your innate sense of “suspension of disbelief”. Never enough to stop you from continuing to turn the pages, but enough to make you have a private conversation with the script the whole time. I, at any rate, kept repeating, ‘if you’re going to run my disbelief through this kind of a ringer, you’d better have the story to back it up’.
Because the script keeps the mystery bigger than the effort required to believe it, it ends up a success. But it was close, especially in the first 10 pages.
14 out of 20 points.
3. Are there enough reveals to maintain the initial hook? (30 points)
Once I got through the first 10 and decided to just accept the premise, I was fully absorbed in the story. Most of that comes from the excellent development of the trust theme which pierces every element of the plot. I wanted to find out who killed Emily, but I also wanted to find out who was worth trusting.
Stated as a bumbersticker, the theme of this script is:
Brendan epitomizes this theme by being able to make everyone in the script trust him. He uses the human impulse to trust other humans to bring about the destruction of the all the dishonest denizens of the world in which he lives. He becomes the hero of the story by resisting this human impulse himself.
Species-refuting themes are tough for critics to reconcile. I find myself stuck on what to say to sum this question up into a score. On the one hand, I’m impressed that the theme fits all the plot points and makes a nice bumpersticker. On the other, I don’t know what to make of this truth. I mean, isn’t it necessarily true that a hero HAS to be a human hero? (2) In other words, doesn’t heroism only apply [as an act in itself] to our species?
I suppose there is some rescue offered in the character of The Brain. Brendan trusts him throughout, and becomes the hero by way of this trust. Unfortunately, the backstory of their relationship is never revealed. I think, in order for us to trust Brendan’s trust of The Brain, we need to see what is different about The Brain. Of course, we accept that Brendan trusts The Brain but, why should we?
Besides this thematic lacuna, I have one other issue which comes in two parts.
I don’t buy the motivation of Tug or Laura. Why does Tug kill Emily? And what does Laura gain by being the mastermind? I can find the reasons the script gives for these things, but I don’t believe that [even in this, slightly removed from our world, world] either of these characters acts like this. The bad part of this equation as far as the score goes is that the initial actions of these two IS the reason there is a story. If their motivations are false, then the ensuing story is also false.
18 out of 30 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) The introduction probably tipped my hand on this part [and the next]. Still, it’s worth reading this to see how the location choices generate suspense. There is a great sense of claustrophobia mixed with a strange myopia, which laces the locations.
It feels like the characters can’t get out of the fishbowl they’re in. This is well-done and worth emulating in any script with similarly contained locations. I do think, however, it is appropriate to deduct a few points over the myopia which accompanies the claustrophobia.
In other words, I get that the characters feel trapped, but I’m never 100 percent sure why. This story is unique FOR SURE, but that does not mean this quality is in the script in a way that feels organic to the material.
4 out of 5 points.
Part B) I think this part of this question needs a bit of preamble too. The author attempts to create the tone of a familiar genre, noir, while setting the script in the most unlikely of locations, a high school. This is an idea which automatically piqued my interest, but it is also wildly dangerous. You can get too cute in your premise construction and end up wasting a lot of time writing something that fails to be tonally consistent at a basic, page one, level. Feel free to wedge your premise against its genre, just know that you’re going to have to work twice as hard at consistency as you otherwise would.
For the most part, I thought the tone worked. There were a few instances where I scratched my head at the choices, but the mystery in the story propelled me through the rough patches. [For instance: I’m never really going to buy a hard-boiled noir protagonist going back to his mother’s house to sleep. This is an area of tonal discord that can’t be unwritten.] I do think, however, the cuteness in the premise design got the script noticed by those who have a half million dollars to throw around. As a straight noir, this story would be all ‘been there done that’ territory. Just be careful if you attempt genre smashing like this in your own writing.
For the sake of a [since abandoned] rigorous completeness I further want to weigh the initial images as a less oblique measure of the quality of the writing:
SUPER MAIN TITLES
over a grimy concrete wall creeping by. We emerge from…
EXT. RUNOFF TUNNEL – EARLY MORNING
A gaping hole in the concrete side of a freeway. On the
embankment beside the hole BRENDAN FRYE squats, shoulders
hunched. His dark eyes behind thin glasses watch the
shallow stream of water which flows into the tunnel.
not more than six inches deep. Just beneath the surface a
young woman’s pale blue arm in gaudy bracelets bats against
the edge of her body like a docked boat. A pebble plinks
into the water beside it. (3)
First, let me acknowledge that this is another of the dreaded flashforwards. I’ll say now [the explanation is above] that this flashforward works.
As far as the writing goes, then, I liked all of it. The images aren’t new, but they are well done. I especially like the docked boat simile, and the pebble plinking.
The rest of the description adheres to this beginning standard. The noir tone runs on most all of its cylinders. The occasional hiccup owed to the dissonance in the high school setting rarely comes close to derailing the read. In deference to the fact of those hiccups, though:
4 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)
Even back in the salad days of my reviewing career, I could never have endorsed a theme like the one this script has. I just don’t think it’s true. All of my thoughts on dialogue [in particular] and conversation [in general] require this theme to be false. Trusting others is the basis of a just society. Some will prey on this trust [forever I suppose], but they are part of a vanishing minority.
It is just false that trusting someone else is a moral evil. Invalidating the trust of someone else OUGHT to be a moral evil [if it isn’t then our creator is, likewise, not just], but our humanity is DEPENDENT on our willingness to believe what others say when they say it. This [and not our opposable thumbs] is what makes us unique as a species. It is also what makes us worthwhile as a species.
2 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 70
1. How often does a character tell us who the murderer is on page 3? The code, which Rian Johnson attributes to Hammet’s influence, was brilliant.
2. Naturally, I’m not arguing that a non-human can’t be a hero. I just mean that the hero has to have recognizably human characteristics.
3. 1 I footnote the first of Rian Johnson’s footnotes in order to point them out. Read the script just for these. Seriously. Wealth of information inside them about production choices versus writing choices. (XX) Worth the Read.