a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Best Scripts I Ever Read - Maybe.

Someone asked me in an e-mail today to write about the best screenplays I ever read, and I have to admit that that is a tough one, for a few reasons. The biggest one is that, to read as many things a year as I do, I generally try to forget everything I read after I write it up. Then, scripts I read after seeing the movie don't really count (because I am reading differently than if I hadn't), and while I'm sure I read some great unproduced scripts over the years, I'm really straining to think of any real examples.

Which might be the real story here -- that there just aren't a lot of amazing unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood. In fact, I can remember in the 1980s, when a screenwriting magazine would regularly put out their list of the ten best unproduced scripts, the list would inevitably include scripts that when they were finally made were very underwhelming, like "Miracle Mile" or "Man Trouble". Digging into my brain (for something, anything), I remember reading a cute/funny script by Garrison Keillor (of all people) about a teenage boy spending a night out on a line waiting to buy concert tickets. Was it a great script? I don't really remember. But it stuck with me, and that has to be worth something.

I read a draft of "Dolan's Cadillac", based on a Stephen King short story, that was supposed to be made with Sylvester Stallone at one point (who would have been totally wrong for the part). Someday, someone is going to make a very solid movie out of it.

Most of the very good scripts I remember reading were scripts thateventually were made into movies. "Saving Private Ryan" is probably one of the best, though the draft I read was better than the eventual movie. One great scene I remember, that didn't make the film, was one in which Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore's characters are talking about the incident in which Hanks' character became a hero, after saving 10 men. The problem is that 9 of the 10 had since died anyway, making Hanks wonder what the point of his heroism was; Sizemore was the 10th man, and he soon died, as of course does Hanks (hey, if this is a spoiler, you don't go to enough movies). The whole exchange was thoughtful and sort of spoke to the sad, pointless side of war and heroism, probably so much so that Spielberg decided not to put it in the movie. Too bad.

Paul Haggis' "Crash" was a great script, one of the ones that stayed with me, that I was happy to hear was being made into a film. "Short Cuts" was a good read. "In America". "Life as a House". "Stay" I remember generally liking, though the huge amount of money that it sold for was too much for a small film that isn't going to be helped by the studio now needing it to be a big film. "Ocean's Eleven" is a great read, that somehow played better than the movie did, though the movie isn't bad.

For fun, I just opened up my logbook, to see how many scripts I read in September 2000 actually got made into movies; figure 5 years is a good benchmark (and also remember that I read for production companies and small studios, so most of these scripts came from agents or producers). Turns out I read 20 books and 50 scripts that month (and probably ignored my wife too much). 4 of the scripts were made into movies (though by companies other than who I read them for) -- "Ocean's Eleven", "Death To Smoochy", and low-budget movies "The Safety of Objects" (another good script) and "Morvern Callar" (which I don't remember much about). I know I hated "Death to Smoochy", was shocked at the cast that signed up for it, and felt validated when it tanked (though I'm not perfect -- for instance, I was underwhelmed by a collection of boxing short stories that was ultimately turned into "Million Dollar Baby". But Haggis' script worked, they cast the hell out of it, and Eastwood did a good job directing it. In other hands... who knows?)

Otherwise, the September 2000 roster is made up of a lot of scripts and books that don't ring many bells. I read a few of the Chronicles of Amber books for someone that month, but it's going to take a miniseries (or a TV series) and a solid budget to really bring the stories in those books across. I also read a script based on Robertson Davies "Deptford Trilogy" that didn't really work well, and a draft of "The Incredible Hulk" that had nothing at all to do with the eventual film. Aside from these is just a bunch of titles that don't mean much; quite possibly some of these were solid tales that no one wanted to take a flyer on, but more likely they were just entries in the grand mass of mediocre scripts that drift by and never really go anywhere.

And that's the bottom line. Every month I read 50-80 new things. Some are good, and are going to go on to make decent movies; some will get made even though they aren't all that good. Most just lack the really great idea, the fresh writing, the crisp storytelling or the collection of interesting characters that are going to spark anyone's interest -- and unless you are writing a high-concept comedy or a horror film, you really need all those things to sell your script.

Everyone is looking for a great script. And there are a lot fewer out there than you might imagine.


At 10:56 PM, Blogger Mark said...

That's a serious amount of reading. How do you keep track of your own material?

Mark's Screenwriting Page

At 2:31 AM, Blogger Danny Stack said...

Great post Scott. I could count on a Simpsons hand the great scripts that I have read.

If I give my brain a shake, this is what sticks out: I've read two of Zach Helm's scripts. He's the Charlie Kaufman of Charm. The Grudge was a good read, better than the film. Paul Haggis's The Last Kiss was effortlessly done. And I read an adaptation of Something Happened recently which absolutely blew my socks off. This has snuck into my 'best script ever read' list but like you say, it won't necessarily translate into a successful or money making movie.

At 7:18 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

mark --

I try to write like a madman whenever the work slows down.

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved Sprockets by Mike Meyers (unproduced)

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Is that the one he wrote, and then shut down production because he thought his own script sucked?

At 4:43 PM, Blogger PJ McIlvaine said...

Two scripts stand out in my mind, both unproduced. One was a take off on Hitchcock movies and was quite clever. The other was an adaptation of a story by a South African writer who's name escapes me. Very powerful.

At 10:21 PM, Blogger KM said...

I loved "Death to Smoochy." In part it's probably because I'm a big Ed Norton fan, but as far as I'm concerned, "Smoochy" is one of the best dark comedies in years.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Alex Epstein said...

"Sailmaker" by Barry Schneider and Ron Montana.

"Mythic" by Ehren Kruger.

"The Spire" by Roger Spottiswoode, based on the William Golding novel.

I got the first two optioned back in the day, the other we were never able to set up. I would go see any of them in a New York second.

At 7:34 PM, Blogger Singlet Films said...

The Deptford Trilogy -- that's one of my favourite books. Do you remember anything about who was involved? Know anything about what happened to it? Why didn't it work?

if you can recall ... ;-)


At 1:24 AM, Anonymous Ali C said...

I saw Morvern Callar - it was awful. It has one of the most annoying things a screenplay can have imho - a stupid protagonist. Morvern's boyfriend dies, she steals his novel, puts her name on the front and tries to sell it. When a publisher tells her he loves it - we get the embarrassing scene where he asks her about her ideas - and she can't say anything because she hasn't read the manuscript! If anything sucks the life out of me it is a film where the hero is so stupid they'll never surprise me with a clever idea of theirs.

Love the blog:)

At 5:39 AM, Blogger frederikosN said...

Whatever happened to Sailmaker. I read the script when working for a filmcompany and was sure about it's potential. Ridley Scott was set to direct.


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