Today’s script JUST SET THE BAR for 2023!!!
Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy
Premise: A low-level worker on a spaceship run by a dark god must steal the most powerful weapon in the universe to save his workplace crush.
About: This script finished Top 10 on last year’s Black List. The writer has a lot of credits in the animated kids TV space. He wrote on such shows as Monsters at Work and Vampirina. Which, after you read this review, is going to be beyond shocking.
Writer: Travis Braun
Details: 97 pages
This has Holland written all over it!
You are about to experience something so rare that you may not know what to do with yourself afterwards. The rumors are true. You’re about to read a glowing review of a Black List script.
This is no ordinary script. This isn’t graded on a curve to adjust for the current level of the Black List. This is a legit awesome script. I don’t know who this writer is. I don’t know where he came from. But if he doesn’t get snatched up by the Marvel universe by the end of this weekend, I’ll be shocked.
24 year old Charlie was delivering a package when earth was invaded and aliens either killed or enslaved everyone. Charlie is one of the enslaved. He lives on a Death Star like ship that travels around the galaxy, destroying planets.
The ship is run by a terrifying alien named Morticus. Morticus is the embodiment of evil. All he cares about is killing. The only reason Charlie, the other humans, or the other enslaved aliens on the ship, aren’t dead, is because he needs people to keep the ship running.
Charlie spends most of his time cleaning up weapons that have just been discarded during battles. This place is like the Wild West. If the guards aren’t killing you, another slave is. This is Charlie’s every single day. It is pure misery. He has no reason to live. The only reason he doesn’t kill himself is because he’s too much of a wimp to.
Then one day, he gets a message on his food ration plate. It says, simply, “Have fun.” Perplexed, Charlie looks to see who wrote the message, and sees Emma. Charlie is instantly smitten.
He writes her back a message, and the two continue to go about their days, stealing glances and smiles, but never actually talking to each other because if you talk to other people, they kill you.
For once, Charlie has a reason to be alive. And boy is he happy about it. (Spoiler) That is until Morticus comes down from his tower, finds out Emma was planning to escape, and takes his scepter and thrashes it into her, making her die the most horrible death imaginable.
Now, Charlie is even more devastated than he was before he knew Emma! His life truly sucks. That is until he hears a rumor that Morticus’s scepter has the power to bring people back alive. For the first time since he’s been on this hellscape, Charlie is going to rock the boat. He’s going to travel to Morticus’s tower, steal his scepter, and reanimate his girlfriend!
There’s so much bonkers good here, I don’t know where to start.
You read ten scripts in a row that are all somewhere between bad and average and you start to think that a) nobody knows how to write anymore. b) your standards have gotten too high, or c) some combination of the two.
But then a script like this comes along and reminds you that there is still good writing out there! Which means we have another script to place in the ‘good script’ archives to learn from.
First, I’ll start with the writing. It was so light and clever and effortless. It was such a joy to read. I know that’s cliche. But it really was. I found myself not just looking forward to plot beats, but looking forward to actual line descriptions. Which is crazy. Cause that never happens.
I mean how great is this line: “Charlie and Sodros enter the vast throne room. It’s cold and empty, no doubt a design choice to match Morticus’ soul.” Despite what one of the commenters here will say via a 750 word essay about why this isn’t a clever or good line, trust me, it is. I’ve read everything. I read anything. Nobody writes lines this effortlessly funny like this. It’s super rare. And Braun somehow keeps it up the whole script.
I mean check out this description of the ship: “A massive engine of intergalactic evil.” I don’t know many writers who can capture the essence of an object inside such a concise simple line with the kind panache that Braun does here.
And it’s just fun. The line is fun. The story is fun. Everything here is fun. Here’s a quick dialogue exchange.
HAYNES: C’mon man. I’m your bestie. I can practically tell everything you’re thinking.
CHARLIE: You’re a telepath.
HAYNES: That’s fair. But if I wasn’t, I’d like to think our connection was such that I could still tell.
Now if it was just about the description and dialogue, that wouldn’t be enough for me. It’s the way the story is told as well. This is a writer who understands the craft. For example, Charlie’s job is to clean weapons. Weapons are used non-stop on this ship because all anybody does here is kill. The script lures us into that reality without us really thinking about it. Then, when Charlie finally decides to do something and re-animate his girlfriend, guess who has access to a bunch of weapons in order to do so?
You can always tell seasoned writers because they’re great with setups and payoffs.
But probably the thing that I liked about this script the most and what really separated Braun’s script from all the others is his dedication to turning moments on their head end not giving you what you expect.
For example, we’ve got Charlie and Emma flirting from afar with the kind of sexual tension that, if converted into raw energy, could power a mid-size country. Braun builds that up to crazy levels over the course of 15 pages. Then there’s a big dust-up and several creatures are killed. Charlie and Emma are order to transfer the dead aliens’ armor and weapons down to another floor.
The two wheel the armor into an elevator, and it’s the first time they’ve ever been alone together. As soon as the doors close, Emma says, “I think we have about ninety seconds.” “Yeah,” Charlie replies. “We should use it wisely,” she says. “Totally.” I think you know where this is going.
One of the biggest teaching tools out there for screenwriters is measuring what you would write versus what a great screenwriter would write. I can honestly say that, 99% of the time, the weak screenwriter writes what you expect. This is why only 1% break through. Because those are the screenwriters who think differently. They’re the ones who come up with the moments that the audience couldn’t have come up with themselves.
So when you look at the above scene that I set up, where they’re in the elevator together, I’m guessing 99% of you assumed that we would then cut to them having sex. Or cut to the end of the elevator ride, the doors opening, and them looking disheveled, clearly just having had sex.
That’s not what happened. And if you would’ve written that, you would’ve lost the game of screenwriting. Because EVERYBODY would’ve written that. The accountant in the back of the theater who’s never written so much as essay in his life would’ve come up with that reveal.
Instead, after their little exchange, we smash cut to them each wearing the alien armor, swords raised and they proceed to play fight with it.
It’s such a clever cut that you can’t help but smile. But, more importantly, it displays pro-writer behavior. Which is to ask what the audience expects and then make sure to give them something different.
This happens repeatedly throughout the script.
Later on, Charlie, while sneaking around trying to get to Morticus, gets stuck in a fuel pipe, and is all of a sudden sucked deep into this thing by fuel, and will for sure drown. Except, at the last second, he gets yanked out of this thing by a cool Oscar Isaac like character named Ignacio. Ignacio is this bada$$ who’s been living here in the front of the ship, using his awesomeness to survive. We immediately love the guy.
Him and Charlie get to chatting and I’m all psyched about how Charlie is going to team up with this dude and they’re going to save Emma’s life together. That is until Ignacio confides that he’s heartless and only cares about himself. Charlie says, “No you’re not. You saved me.” And Ignacio’s entire persona flips on a dime. He replies, “Who says I saved you?”
All of a sudden, straps whip around Charlie’s arms and legs, tying him to the chair. Ignacio then says he’s sorry but he’s got to kill Charlie and sell him off for food pound by pound, cause human flesh is worth a lot around here.
Braun had me hook, line, and sinker. He set up the Ignacio character so well that I never in a million years thought he was a bad guy. But, again, this is what good writers do. They lead the reader towards a conclusion they’re sure of, then repeatedly pull the rug out from under them.
On a slightly different topic, today’s script is the perfect comparison piece to yesterday’s script. You may be saying, “Carson, are you insane? Yesterday’s script was set on earth and followed a depressed pregnant pizza deliver girl struggling to accept whether she would be a good mother or not. What does that have to do with running around a spaceship trying to reanimate the love of your life?”
Quite a bit, actually.
You see, movies are great at exploring universal themes, the things we all experience in life. But they’re not good at doing that LITERALLY. They’re much more effective when you find larger-than-life stories in larger-than-life genres that explore those same themes on a much larger tapestry.
Dying For You is about depression just like Pizza Girl is about depression.
The difference is, the depression is explored on a much bigger canvas, which allows us to actually be entertained while we’re exploring that theme. Writers make the mistake of thinking that if they’re very literal and show dying and crying and drug addiction and daddy hit me exactly how they happen, that we’ll eat it up. But if you show that exactly the way it happens in the real world, there’s a good chance we’re going to be bored and miss the point.
That doesn’t happen in a movie like Dying For You. This is a story about a guy who has zero reason to live. He’s a slave on a spaceship where everything is designed to kill you. The love of his life was killed in front of him. His baseline is depression. But because we get these fun exchanges between him and friend. Because we get this exciting adventure where he goes off and gets in all these battles and chases – we’re actually entertained. And because we’re entertained, we’re more present – WHICH ALLOWS US TO FEEL THE DEPRESSION MORE INTENSELY.
Let me summarize that: “If we’re more present, we care more about what’s happening. Which means we feel your emotional beats more effectively.”
Now, I can already hear some of you rolling your eyes. “So I should never write a drama Carson? What about Lost In Translation? What about Good Will Hunting? Those weren’t great movies that made us feel for the characters?”
That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that as an unknown screenwriter trying to capture a reader – or even as a professional writer trying to bring in a real audience to his movie – you’re much better off looking for a larger-than-life setup to explore universal themes than you are doing it literally via a drama.
There’s a version of Everything Everywhere All At Once that doesn’t have multi-verses. That’s just about an Asian family that a mother has checked out of. The Daniels could’ve written that movie. And guess how many people would’ve seen it? Hold up both your hands, fingers extended, then lower three of those fingers. Count the rest. That’s how many people would’ve gone to see that movie.
I’m getting off-track here.
The point is, this is a great script. It’s honestly everything a spec screenplay should be. It’s got a big fun premise. It’s got a likable main character. It’s written in a fun, effortless manner with tons of white on the page. The dialogue is funny. The writer is constantly surprising us. The mythology is great. This is it, man. This script IS screenwriting.
All Hail Morticus.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 25!)
[ ] genius
What I learned: This script reminded me that when you create a scenario where two people can’t be around each other (in this case Charlie and Emma), every single moment they do get together is CHARGED. When these two were around each other, I can’t remember a time where a scene between romantic interests felt so big and important.