Today’s script is the best Nicholl winning script I’ve ever read. And it’s not even close. A new Top 25 Scriptshadow Screenplay!
Premise: An 18-year-old skateboarding “rat” named Allie finally gets her chance to leave the garbage dangerous futuristic city she’s grown up in. But will she be able to leave her fellow “rats” who must now fend for themselves?
About: This script was one of the five winners of the 2019 Nicholl Screenplay Contest. It beat out over 7000 screenplays.
Writer: Walker McKnight
Details: 109 pages
One of the most frustrating things about the Nicholl back in the day was that when you didn’t advance, there was no way to read the scripts that beat you. I mean how are you supposed to improve if you can’t study what made the winners better? It made the contest feel elusive and, at times, pointless.
Flash forward to today and you can usually find the winning scripts if you’re resourceful. From there, you get to do a little reconnaissance action for next year’s competition.
The general consensus is that Nicholl celebrates a few common things. Deep intense themes. Social issues. Stories centered around far off places and distant times. Nicholl thinks of itself as serious. So you gotta bring the serious to win.
However, they usually reserve one selection every year for something offbeat. The voice is wild. The writing is unconventional. The mythology is exotic. I remember one winning screenplay that was told in all first person. They reluctantly celebrate one of those scripts a year mainly because they don’t want to be labeled as the contest that only likes Manchester by the Sea scripts.
Even then, they usually blow it. The “weird” winner always feels too messy or too raw. Well, I can finally tell you that Nicholl, that old rascally devil, got it right. It took him 30 years. But he picked a weird script that’s actually awesome. And you’re probably looking up at that logline and thinking, “Really, Carson? That logline resulted in a great script?” Yes it did.
Yes it did.
18-year-old Jammer is a street rat. Part of a small crew of teenage girls who lives in a domed city that was once inhabited by humans. But hundreds of years have passed and there are only a scant number of humans remaining. Most of the populace is made up of robots and creatures, the latter of which came about via too much DNA splicing.
Jammer is explaining to 16-year-old Allie that she, now, is in charge of the rats. Jammer secured one of those impossible-to-get train tickets for herself which will allow her to travel to other cities where humans still thrive. Allie is devastated. She’s not ready, she pleads. But Jammer assures her that she didn’t think she was ready either. You have to trust yourself, she assures Allie, and leaves.
Cut to 2 years later and Allie has become the leader Jammer knew she could be. She’s able to scrape together food for her tiny crew of skateboarding rats. There’s 16-year-old Moonpie, who’s terrified of the day Allie leaves her in charge. There’s Pushpop, a tough girl with only one eye. And there’s the youngest and most naive of the group, Guppy, who swears every new food she tastes is her favorite (mainly because they barely ever eat).
The day finally arrives where Allie receives her ticket from a sneaky ladybug bot. Jammer sent the ticket. Allie’s on the next train out, which is rumored to be the last train ever. Moonpie is devastated. She’s not ready for this. Allie has to keep reminding her that while it’s scary, she’ll be ready. However, deep down, Allie is worried that if Moonpie isn’t ready, the girls will starve to death.
But before Allie can worry about that, her ticket is stolen! And the thief is the worst possible… thing it can be. Big Green. A mafia head. Allie goes to Big Green to ask for her ticket back. Sure, he says. But first you have to deliver this item – an innocuous silver sphere – to the Ticket Taker at the train station. Do that and you get your ticket back.
Allie does so reluctantly but barely gets halfway across the city before she’s attacked by one of the many gangs working the streets. They take the sphere, which means she now has to find the sphere to deliver it to get the ticket to get out of here. She enlists the help of her fellow rats to do the job. All under the guilty cloak of, if they succeed, she’s leaving them to fend for themselves. Is that what Allie really wants? I guess we’re going to find out.
When I started reading the script, I was skeptical. There was a fun little set-piece with a street food vendor named “Gog,” (who sold ‘gog,’ tentacles he chopped off of himself). But it was eye candy. Silly stuff you could see in any video game cut scene.
But I’ll tell when I knew the script was going to be good. It was when Allie had a REAL CONVERSATION with the other rats. She brought back the food, they all ate, and they talked about their situation. Guppy, the youngest, is scared that Allie is going to leave them. She voices that fear. How are they going to eat when she’s gone? Allie explains that Moonpie will take over. It’s a difficult conversation because it’s REAL.
In this moment, the writer ignores this world that he’s created – an extensive that’s easy to get lost in – so that he can have a real conversation between humans dealing with real issues. They’re all alone. Allie takes care of them. What happens when Allie is no longer there to do so? We see the fear in the gang. And we see the guilt on Allie’s end. It’s a genuine conversation.
Most writers who write these big expensive genres never write a REAL CONVERSATION. Everything between the characters has to be cool or elevated or ultra-melodramatic. “Movie-logic” dialogue. Which is exactly why it reads false. When you’re writing these screenplays, you have to put, somewhere in your first act, a REAL CONVERSATION. Because these conversations are the ones that convince the reader these are real people with real problems. Which is exactly why the reader starts caring.
Without that scene, I don’t care nearly as much as I do with the scene.
I also want to draw your attention to a save the cat moment. By the way, for screenwriting purists, this script hits the Hero’s Journey stuff to the T. Every beat is hit exactly when it’s supposed to. But like every great screenwriter is able to do, that structure is invisible. We don’t see it because the characters are so good and the sequences are so creative (and fun).
But I want you to think of a save the cat moment for Allie. It should be pretty simple. These girls depend on her to survive. So all you need is a scene that shows her getting them food. Right? Well, that gets the job done. But seasoned writers know how to guss up a cat-saving scene. And what McKnight does is clever.
After her meeting with Big Green, Allie is able to sneakily steal three apples from his stash. She’s starving. When she gets outside, she goes to bite one but manages to stop. Then she gets home and after telling the girls what happened, she reveals the three apples, one for each of them. Again, this is where most writers would stop. But just as they’re about to eat, Pushpop says, “Wait a minute, where’s yours?” And Allies says, “I already ate mine.”
Now THAT’S a save the cat moment. This girl is willing to lie about her own hunger so that none of her gang gives up some of their food for her. I mean, if you don’t like Allie after that moment, you don’t own a heart, my friend.
On top of this, the story is operating with this great dilemma at the center of it. By the way, an easy way to level up your characters is to give them something they’re mentally wrestling with. And here, all Allie has dreamed of is leaving this city. She wants out of here more than anything. Yet, to do so, she has to abandon her family. Not only that. She’s leaving them to fend for themselves. And if they can’t, they’ll die.
If all that were it, this would’ve topped out at an “impressive” for me. But the thing that puts it into Top 25 category is the mythology and the world and the characters were so creative and fun. Every villain in this, I felt like I was at the theater looking at them. And that includes Big Green, who is cleverly not even shown! He’s brought into the room on a box and all we hear is a lot slurping and sliming. We see things spit out into Allie’s shot, but we never see what she’s actually looking at. It’s genius.
This writer basically punched his own ticket to writing the next Pixar movie. Some may say that’s the goal of specs these days. Not to necessarily sell them. But to use as a resume to get their first big job. I always tell you not to write high-budget scripts. But if you’re as good of a writer as this guy, you can throw that advice in the trash.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (**NEW TOP 25 SCREENPLAY!!!**)
[ ] genius
What I learned: THE CONTRADICTORY SOLUTION – It happens once every script. You have to endorse two contradictory elements and make sure the audience doesn’t notice. Here, the stakes need to be high. So McKnight writes that this is THE LAST TRAIN ever leaving the city. Otherwise, it wouldn’t matter if Allie made the train or not. There’s another one coming Friday. However, McKnight also recognized that it doesn’t make sense if Allie leaves the rats in the city forever. The chain of the Head Rat is that they always send another ticket back so the next girl can join them. So what do you do as a writer? Well, McKnight throws in a rumor that this *might* be the last train, but it’s not *for sure.* This allows him to operate on both sides of the fence. It can still be the high stakes last train. Yet there’s hope that when Allie makes it out, she’ll still be able to send a ticket back for Moonpie. Good writers are good at hiding the contradictory solution.