Posted by: daveed | August 20, 2008

Help me make my movie

Some of you know that I’ve been enrolled in the screenwriting certification program at the New School, and about to start my 3rd semester in a few weeks.

Through the program, I’ve been developing my own screenplay—a dark comedy tentatively entitled Naco. Now, my goal is to get the script as awesome as it can possibly be so that it sells. Yep, this is to be a commercial script, meaning I want whoever reads it to think, “Yeah, I’d go see this in a movie theater.” And that someone is not only a Hollywood type, but also you, your neighbor, partner, bookie, relative-in-the-industry (hint, hint)… basically anyone who enjoys watching movies.

Alex Epstein, the author of Crafty Screenwriting, stresses that it’s critical for a script to have a hook. Unless you’re Tarantino or the scion of some mega-movie producer, a hookless script (and all the hard work you put into it) will die a quiet death. One of many millions that fail to get past even the most junior script reader or development exec. (In all fairness, I think Tarantino’s scripts have great hooks; they don’t always get made into great films, but that’s another issue.)

I think my script has a good hook. But I want to be sure, and that’s where you can help. First off, here it is, presented as a logline:

“Arrogant young jerk fakes his own kidnapping for the ransom money, but his wealthy parents, thrilled to be rid of him, won’t pay.”

This is basically the setup, the amount of story information presented in the first 20 pages or so. It doesn’t mention why he wants the money, or why his parents are pleased he’s out of their lives. All will be revealed as it unfolds. What I’m trying to establish here is that there’s enough in that logline to make anyone react, “I gotta know what happens next!”

So you tell me:

> Are you interested in finding out what happens next?
> Does it remind you of other movies?
> What questions come to mind when you read the logline?

Now compare that with this logline, which is how my story is currently structured:

“Middle-aged loser and pretend-Green Beret is hired by the mob to bring back a guy who owes money, but then helps him fake his kidnapping for a share of the ransom money.”

Which would you rather see? (If it’s neither, please don’t be afraid to let me know.) The nut is still there—the faked kidnapping—but now it’s the wannabe’s story instead of the arrogant jerk. As much as I’m drawn to this other character—and the whole fascinating subculture of special forces frauds and poseurs—it feels unsatisfactory to me.

Thoughts? And I’m open to all sorts of questions or comments about setting, character arc, tone, character motivations. Because it helps me make the story better when I bounce ideas off people and get their feedback. Thanks.


  1. I like the arrogant jerk idea better. Nothing wrong with the other idea. What I would want to see in the story is two things:

    1 – why or how someone becomes an arrogant jerk

    2 – a truthful portrayal of a parent or parents who really don’t love their child

    All while being completely hilarious, of course.

    Any thoughts on casting? I don’t really follow the 20 somethings, so I don’t know if it would be like Ashton Kutcher or Justin Timberlake, or somebody else…

  2. Reminds me of Fargo a little, one of my favorite movies, but im assuming thered be less wood chipper in this one.
    Im thinking the first logline seems more comedic with the whole parent aspect put in.
    U could have the dad be rich but cheap and an armchair Green Beret and go after the son.
    Sorta like the grandad in fargo but again that didnt work out very comedically
    excuse my mangled english in this response

  3. Yes, great points. The arrogant jerk is harder for me to get my head around, but that’s where I originally started with. The wannabe vet is funny, and could definitely be a scene-stealer (I wrote a fucking great opening with him as the main character). But it’s harder I think to identify with him since he’s so subculture.

    The first point you make, about why he becomes an arrogant jerk: the best I have right now is that this is young man who’s had everything handed to him. His sense of entitlement is outmatched only by his incompetence. He lives in a bubble of privilege, as the only child of much older parents, and he’s a bit of a shyster. You know, the kind of dudes we used to barely tolerate at school…

    Second point: yeah, that’s been a tough one. My screenwriting prof suggested making the parents (or one, such as a step-parent) the baddies. I was imagining an elderly couple who has worked for years, putting up with their son’s shenanigans, bailing him out, and so on. They’ve finally been able to enjoy a prosperous, quiet retirement when the son’s trangressions essentially are the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The son would have to have fucked up big time, which could make him completely unsympathetic… Argh.

    Casting. I’m thinking someone like Ian Somerhalder (Boone from Lost) to play the son. John Goodman to play the fake bounty hunter. Jerry Stiller as the father, Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days) as the mom. Vince Vaughn as the cowboy mobster.

  4. I like the first logline better. With the second one, why would the mob hire a loser to get back their money?

  5. Tom, that’s an interesting idea… that the parents (or one of them) deliberately hire an incompetent so the jerk doesn’t get found. I was toying with that, but that it was the mob boss hiring the guy…

    One of the obstacles was that every character appears to be a boob, a moron. No one was a true antagonist—I was thinking the main character’s own worst tendencies would be “the antagonist”, but I don’t think that makes for good drama.

    Steve: you hit the nail on the head. And that was the problem that kept coming up. It was totally looming over my entire story structure.

  6. Dave, The second logline made me imagine a cross between Knapp (Jeremy Sisto’s character in the short lived TV show Kidnapped) and Gomer Pyle…..THAT would be interesting.

    Not that I know what a logline is 🙂

  7. “But it’s harder I think to identify with him since he’s so subculture.”

    I’ll bet nearly everyone, at some point in their lives, has come across at least one guy (it’s always a guy) like this.

    I’ve known a few in my day. Like the Pizza Hut manager I knew when I was a delivery guy back in HS. He claimed to be special forces. He seemed to know everything about karate and weapons. He was always talking about all the ways he could disable, disarm or even dismember a guy. Even then we sensed he was slightly full of shit. Now, looking back, I remember him as a sad, 30-something loser with a doughy midsection and a ridiculous mustache.

    My point is that I don’t think a pretend green beret is too subculture. You could simply draw on those fools we’ve all known and exaggerate their personalities to comedic or tragic proportions. It would seem to me that he’d make a very good comedic secondary character and a more tragic hero. Which is exactly what these guys are.

    All that said, your first logline sounds much cleaner to me. I like it and definitely would want to find out more. My only question is: what happens next? It seems you’ve set up a stalemate. Kid fakes own kidnapping for ransom. Parents won’t pay. Now what?

    Someone mentioned Fargo above, but there’s another Cohen Brothers movie this reminds me of: The Big Lebowski. Bunny faked her own kidnapping to extort cash from her old, infirm husband who (it turns out) doesn’t really intend on paying. That could have been a stalemate, except that the husband decides to hire the Dude to try and get her back with a fake ransom. And it had something to do with them having the same name. And a pissed-on rug. Who the hell knows what exactly was going on in that movie?

    Anyway, this was entirely unhelpful I’m sure.

    How about this? The arrogant jerk fakes his own kidnapping to get cash from parents. But at the same time, the parents hire a hitman to kill their good-for-nothing son. Call it “Hit and Run.”

  8. quot homines, tot sententiae

    the second one sounds FAR better, wannabe’s are people we can all relate to!! especially with the Olympics on!
    whereas arrogant jerks are people we cannot/do not relate to (the more we are one, the less we see ourselves in them)!!! also, aren’t they a bit rote? eg devil wears prada… most every villain… whereas nobody’s heard of wannabe special forces subculture

  9. This is all awesome feedback, and VERY much appreciated…

    Brian, that title/concept is fucking great — you should write it!

    I agree that the 2nd logline is not as tight as the first, but after thinking on this for days (and friggin days), there’s something more to the wannabe character. Maybe it’s because I have an aversion to rich jerks and there’s some part of me who wishes I’d lived a more adventurous/dangerous life…

    I also thought of a much better choice for the wannabe: John C. O’Reilly. With him in mind, I can see having his the main character. The themes were greed and heroism — the wannabe is motivated by the first, but then truly discovers the second. The rich kid was a sort of “damsel in distress”; but that means making him more sympathetic, which I’ve got to work on.

    I still envision a buddy picture, but with the wannabe (his name is Guy) the main arc the audience will follow. But the kid (Andy) will likely change too, going from rich jerk to someone humble.

    Again, big hat tip to eveyrone for pitching in some great thoughts/comments/questions/ideas… It’s nice to get out of the vacuum.

  10. I agree that the wannabe is more hook-y. It’s quite relateable since we’re living through such a militarized era. The dirty shit we do overseas is much more out in the open now. Everybody knows someone who’s fought in the middle east at this point.

    To me, the hook is the line between ordinary lazy schlub and fighter, which both characters have the potential to touch. (Even your arrogant dude– he’s a self-indulgent wastrel who finds himself messed up in organized crime.) Most of us will never touch a gun, but don’t we all wonder what we’d do if things got real? (From what I’ve seen of “Pineapple Express” it’s largely about that.) Could I hold my own? What if I had to bluff like I was hard core? Could I pull it off?

    I think the key is to feel like, either of those characters could be me if things had gone just a little wrong.

  11. […] at empty pages I’m choking on a complete story rewrite. That is, if I was actually writing instead of constantly renaming files like […]

  12. […] Regarding my current screenplay, I first brought up the challenge of crafting it here, and bitched about it here, and came upon some completely effective, yet so simple advice that […]

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