Is today’s thriller the best script of the 2021 Black List so far?

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A ride-share driver who’s just purchased his dream car, a 1969 Ford Mercury Cyclone, goes on the Tinder date from hell.
About: Today’s writer, Stefan Jaworski, started writing for TV in Sweden. He has made a few inroads writing here in the U.S., with the TV series, “Those Who Kill,” and the 2021 film, “The Devil Below,” about a group of amateur adventurers who specialize in exploring remote and forsaken places. This script of his landed on last year’s Black List.
Writer: Stefan Jaworski
Details: 92 pages

We are BACK on the script review train, checking out a top 10 script from last year’s Black List. I know the writer has been at it for a while as my files show he had a script in circulation all the way back in 2010. This is a long game, everyone! Gotta keep at it.

[NOTE: Spoilery summary – you should probably read the script first!]

Our 20-something lead is Michael Smith, who we meet buying a car, a 1969 Ford Mercury Cyclone, from an old man. I don’t know much about cars but according to our characters’ conversation, the Cyclone was the fastest car you could buy in 1969.

Michael then texts his date, Laura, that he’s coming to pick her up. Laura’s someone he met on Tinder (or Hinge, or Bumble) and they seem to have a great connection. He picks her up in Beverly Hills and they immediately begin some meet-cute dialogue, talking about what sort of superheroes they would be.

After they picnic at Griffith Park, Michael and Laura are engaged in another lovey-dovey conversation while on the freeway when – BAM! – a black SUV rams them from behind. And then – BAM! – rams them again! Concurrently, Laura starts getting all these text-dings on her phone. Michael speeds off the highway and gets to a safe place and stops.

It’s here where Laura comes clean. She has a baaaaad ex-boyfriend. He’s threatened to kill her ever since she left him. He’d disappeared for a while so she thought she was free and clear but I guess not. Laura confides in Michael that she’ll never be able to ditch this guy. He’s too crazy. She’s been planning to escape to this town in Mexico. Maybe tonight needs to be that night.

She’s sorry she got him involved and demands Michael let her go and forget about all this. But Michael is not the kind of guy who leaves a damsel in distress. He will help her escape. What does she need? She’s got to go to three places, she says. Her real house (which is on Skid Row – NOT Beverly Hills), her sister’s, and a friend’s. She needs some personal things before she disappears forever.

But as soon as they’re on the road again, Laura’s ex, Jason, once again comes barreling into the picture, trying to kill them at every turn. When Jason sends a message that if Laura doesn’t surrender, he’s killing everybody she knows, Michael has no choice but to deliver her to Jason’s house.

They show up at the house, head inside, but there’s no Jason. That’s when Laura turns to him and apologizes. Apologize for what, Michael says. For what’s about to happen to you, she says. Michael hears sirens in the distance.

That’s when he realizes he’s been set up. He doesn’t know why. But he knows he has to make a choice in that moment that will change his life forever. And he decides to get in that 1969 Ford Mercury Cyclone… AND ESCAPE AT ALL COSTS. Little does Michael know, his problems are just beginning.

Okay, let’s talk about first acts since First Act March is still going. You probably noticed that, because of the setup, there was no way to first set up our main character’s world. We meet Michael buying his new car. And then we go straight to the date.

This is a good example of the basic challenges you encounter whenever you’re trying to follow a particular screenwriting blueprint. Every story is unique and therefore they don’t all fit the same beat-sheet.

In this case, you have to set up Michael’s world THROUGH DIALOGUE, specially the dialogue of this first date with Laura. That becomes the stand-in for being inside Michael’s world. The good news is that the situation is organic to that information being shared. This is the first meeting between these two. So it makes sense that they’d ask those kinds of questions.

We learn why Michael loves this car so much. That it has a strong connection to his family. We learn that he’s an Uber driver. We learn that he’s a loner and that online dating is new for him. Likewise, we learn things about Laura. In other words, if you can’t get one of these first act components into your screenplay, you have to find substitutions and do the best job you can.

The inciting incident (the SUV ramming them from behind) comes a little late – page 18. That’s even later than usual since the script is only 90 pages long. For a 90 page script, you probably want to hit your inciting incident between pages 10-12. However, the writing is really lean. There’s a lot of dialogue early. And the action lines are 1-2 lines long. So it certainly doesn’t feel like 18 pages have gone by. In fact, that’s a feather in the cap of the entire script, which is written in a really fast fun-to-read style.

We also get the refusal of the call. Michael is tasked with either helping Laura escape or forgetting this night ever existed. And, at first, he decides not to help. But then, of course, he can’t leave her in danger. So he decides to go on the journey. That launches us into the second act, where we get this clever 3-step process that Laura must first execute before she can leave.

I say “clever” because think about it. If all they have to do is get on the 405 south to Mexico, there ain’t a lot you can do plot-wise. By forcing them to zig-zag around Los Angeles, you give the characters more opportunities to run into the bad guys.

In my last newsletter, I spoke about Richter scale moments. Here’s what I said: “The idea behind Richter scale storytelling is simple. Every script needs big moments, moments that “register” with the reader. These are your Richter scale moments, where you hit your reader with plot beats that register 7.0, 8.0, and 9.0 on the Richter scale.”

“Mercury” is one of the best examples I’ve seen of having consistently strong Richter scale moments. Spoilers follow. We get the arrival of the car-bashing crazy ex-boyfriend (8.0 on the Richter scale). We get the moment 40 pages in where we realize she’s set him up (9.0). We get the moment where the mob makes him retrieve what Laura and Jason stole from them (7.5). One after another these Richter scale moments keep coming. It’s great.

Another thing Jaworski does well is he sets up and pays off every single beat of the story. Nothing feels random. For example, there’s this moment in the script where the mob has told Michael that if he doesn’t find their money by sunrise, they’re killing him. And he has NO IDEA where Laura and Jason (who have the money) are. So what does he do?

Jaworski subtly sets up several different times, early on, that Micheal is an Uber driver. And, after Jason rammed into them and Laura came up with that fake plan to get her stuff from her place, she had to confess to him that she didn’t really live in Beverly Hills. She lived near Skid Row and took an Uber to Beverly Hills where he picked her up. He asks why she lied to him and she says, “I was afraid you wouldn’t like me.”

When Michael remembers this moment, he realizes he can use his knowledge and back door access to some Uber information to find out where her Uber originated from, which gives him a destination. There were a ton of moments like this, which were really well thought-through.

And I can hear some of you already saying, “Well, that’s not *that* well thought-through, Carson.” No no no no no. TRUST ME. Read ten other random scripts from this Black List and find me one that puts 10% of the effort into setting up and paying off plot beats that this did. You won’t find one. This has been my biggest beef with the 2021 Black List. Every single script is messy. This is the one script where you can tell the writer actually put in the work.

It’s for all these reasons that, as of this moment, Mercury is the best script of the 2021 Black List. I highly recommend it.

Script link: Mercury

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: There’s a moment early on in the car (before all the chaos starts) where a song comes on the radio. Here’s how it’s described: “She blinks when the radio shifts to a melancholy POP-ROCK SONG. That echoes loneliness and longing. A favorite of Laura’s.” This is how you introduce music in scripts. Do not give us actual song titles. Everybody likes different music. You may love Britney Spears’ amazing breakout single, “Baby One More Time.” But for others, it is like listening to audio lava. So, instead, give us the genre and the mood of the song, like Jaworski does here. That’s enough to convey the mood you’re looking for.