Premise: Trapped at a three day personal development retreat, a woman fights to save her husband and herself from being brainwashed by a charismatic self-help guru.
About: This script finished with 10 votes on this past year’s Black List. The writer is repped at Verve.
Writer: Levin Menekse
Details: 107 pages
Despite all the great entertainment options out there, there’s still nothing quite like reading a good script. Something that sucks you in and never allows you to disengage. That’s the power of good writing.
To that end, I owe today’s experience to you guys. I saw a few of you fawning over this in the comments section and I had to see what all the fuss was about. As it turns out, the subject matter was right up my alley. A cult movie? But not the obvious kind (people in white robes saying weird s%#@ and secretly trying to kill you). The much more sinister kind. Cults dressed up like a self-help organization. Where is the line between genuine self-discovery and manipulation? That’s what today’s script asks. And the answer is splendid.
38 year old lawyer Kirsa Rein finds herself somewhere outside of Los Angeles at a big bland gray building with her 31 year old husband, Peter. Kirsa is trying to make partner at her firm and recently her boss came to this Tony Robbins on steroids retreat called “The Process” which is able to transform you into your bigger better self within three days. Peter is begging Kirsa to ditch the sketch-fest in the last minutes before entering the drab building but she thinks it’s gong to be great.
Famous last words.
Once inside, they’re treated to their first lecture by Aiden Caul, a big intense dude who’s equal parts terrifying and charming. Aiden starts screaming at everyone that this isn’t going to be easy but it’ll be a lot easier if everyone’s honest. Immediately he calls on Kirsa to give her initial impressions on the event but whatever she says, he’s not buying it. This is a woman who’s gotten straight A’s her whole life. Immediately, she’s on the teacher’s s%@$ list.
Afterwards, she meets up with Peter, who’s laughing it up with one of the volunteers, Maya. One of the gorgeous volunteers, Kirsa notices. Hmm, this isn’t going to be anything like she thought. The men and women are separated into different rooms and when Kirsa wakes up, her anti-depressant medication has been taken from her suitcase. She freaks out and yells at the volunteers, which only results in everyone hating her more.
Peter gets called up on stage at the next lecture where Aiden meticulously dresses him down. He starts asking Peter if he’s happy with his life. If he’s happy with his career. If he’s happy with his marriage. At first Peter says, yes, he’s very happy. But Aiden keeps pushing him. Again, the process isn’t a place for bulls@%#. It’s a place for truth. So Peter starts giving him the real answers, starts having real breakthroughs. It’s at this point where Kirsa realizes that this is no longer about getting a promotion. It’s about breaking her husband out of here before he’s fully brainwashed. The question is, will Peter want to go with her?
So there are two ways I recommend starting a spec. Notice I’m saying “spec” here. Not every script. Spec scripts. I use that distinction because people reading specs have zero faith that they’re going to be good. Under those conditions, option 1 is to give us a mysterious situation right out of the gate. This creates a sense of mystery which compels the reader to read on.
Option 2 is to give the reader a familiar situation but to spin it in a way that we’re not expecting. A good example would be The Matrix. A team of cops go to arrest a woman in a building and all of a sudden she starts running on walls and leaping over buildings.
Of these two options, I like number 1 better. I like the opening of It Follows. A young woman runs out of a house and keeps looking back at something chasing her but there’s nothing chasing her. If I’m reading that script, I will definitely keep reading to find out what the heck is going on.
The Process goes with Option 1 in a subtler way, but nonetheless just as effective. We start in this large gray room with no windows. It is populated by half a dozen “volunteers” in unisex uniforms, all staring forward, silent. We don’t know what “volunteers” are yet. We then move out of the room down a long gray hallway, “swallowed into the bowels of an endless building.” Immediately I want to know where I am and what’s going on. These may seem like simple questions but these are questions readers will want answered and therefore keep reading to find out.
All of this took place in one page and already I’m curious to find out more. Remember, your goal when writing scripts is never to impress the reader. Your only job is to make them want to keep turning pages. So give us some questions we want answered right away and we’ll keep turning the pages.
The mystery behind exactly what this place is drives the first 15 pages of the story. And by that point, we’ve gotten to know our couple, Peter and Kirsa. Injecting a couple into this scenario as opposed to an individual was a stroke of genius. Because now it isn’t just about, “How evil is this guru and to what extremes is he willing to go?” It’s “Is this couple going to survive this process?”
This is something I wish I could tattoo onto every screenwriter’s forearm. The cool hook gets us in the door. But it’s what’s going on with the characters that keeps us there. And you have choices in that department. You can just explore what’s going on internally with a character, like Arthur in Joker. Or you can build the exploration around a relationship (marriage, parent-kid, best friends), which I find to be more fun because it’s easier to play with conflict and tension and flaws when two characters can talk about it. When you’re only exploring a character internally, their flaw needs to be actionable to resonate. For example, the flaw of greed is an actionable flaw because there’s lots of ways to show your hero being greedy.
But there are so many more scenes you can write when you’re exploring a relationship and that’s where this script shines. It has a “THAT” scene that explores marriage as intensely as I’ve ever seen. Remember what “THAT” scenes are. They’re big memorable scenes that everyone is going to be talking about after the movie. If you have a below-average script but you have a THAT scene? It’s worth it to keep rewriting your script until you get it right because THAT scenes are indicative of a concept that has potential. You can’t write one of these scenes off a bad idea.
The scene in question is when Aiden takes Peter up on stage and starts asking him if he’s happy with his life. Out in the crowd, we occasionally cut to Kirsa’s reaction to Aiden’s questioning. It’s an amazing scene because Aiden is so blunt at laying out how bad Peter’s life is. Peter is finally confronting this reality. And Kirsa is watching it all unfold helplessly from her seat and terrified with how much further it’s going to go. There is a genuine possibility that by the end of their interaction, he might want to leave her. Talk about a high stakes moment.
There are a lot of strong choices in this script. For example, the reason they’re here is because Kirsa’s boss at the law firm, who also took this course, recommended she do so as well. Kirsa is determined to make partner. So it’s imperative she make her boss happy. This gets rid of the question that is often asked in movies like these: Why don’t they just leave? If things are getting out of control, why wouldn’t they leave? And that’s why. Because she knows if she goes back a failure, she’ll never get that promotion.
The thing that pushed this script over the edge for me was the character of Aiden. He could’ve been a one-dimensional bully. But there’s a lot here he says that makes sense. When he’s challenging people to confront their lives and if they’re happy and if they’ve been lying to themselves, it rings true. And it’s when you have those conflicted feelings as a reader, where you can’t hate the bad guy straight out, that make for a more introspective conflicted read. You don’t want to be feeling this way but you are, and it slyly pulls you into a deeper realm of the story. It’s almost like you have to keep reading to confirm that this guy is bad so that you don’t feel bad yourself about agreeing with him on some things.
This was a perfect mid-week read. And a very financially doable movie. This is exactly the quality of storytelling I’m looking for in The Last Great Screenwriting Contest.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: There are pivot moments where the previous reasoning for something no longer makes sense because of a plot development. When those moments happen, you have to up the reasoning to reflect the new reality. So earlier I said the reason they don’t just leave is because she doesn’t want to go back to her boss and say she didn’t finish the program. However, when Aiden starts destroying her marriage, that logic doesn’t work anymore. You need another reason they stay. So what The Process does is, by that point, Peter is a convert. He believes in what Aiden is saying. So he doesn’t want to leave. This forces Kirsa to stay to try and rescue her husband.