This Week’s Script Cavalcade: O Brother Where Art Thou?

Few films can better achieve the subtle literary epic quality that Joel and Ethan Coen manage to conjure in their Depression-era rural rollick O Brother, Where Art Thou? They masterfully homage an august and timeless Homeric work and contract and expand it narratively to wring out something altogether unique and memorable to modern audiences. The film follows the foibles of three stumblebum miscreants as they make their way through many a trial and tribulation across the dusty Mississippi Delta, encountering a collection of charming crackpots along the way.

The dialogue. The dialogue caroms and coos like the electrifying washboard bluegrass that injects this screenplay with such aural color. The pages hum with a full spectrum of forgotten musical traditions of the past, from gospel to Appalachian ballads to tin pan alley blues. The screenwriters really tap into an amusing and antiquated patois that captures adequately the era and parlance of the Deep South. Our loquacious lead, Ulysses Everett McGill, offers us a wonderfully confabulated cobble of words throughout. Labyrinthine yet lyrical:

The symbolism. The screenplay is fraught with interweaved symbolism that furthers the storytelling skillfully. Everett is constantly fussing about his hair and a fervent customer of a certain brand of hair treatment. The laughable and alliteratively labeled Dapper Dan can becomes a visual symbol of our protagonist’s fatal flaw: His narcissism and inexhaustible braggadocio. The Dapper Dan tins ultimately nigh lead to his downfall as the scent of the pomade is caught by the jailers’ hounds constantly nipping at their heels the entirety of the script.

And that symbolism just keeps providing a tide of insights. During the climax of the script, our hero is bound and knee-bent before a noose. His long and windy misadventures have inextricably led him to this miserable end. Everett peers skyward and the emotional walls finally come crumbling down. He rises above the vanities and insecurities that have hobbled him throughout the narrative. His emotional trajectory culminates at this moment of truth wherein he is resigned to acknowledge his shortcomings and make sincere entreaties toward redemption. His heartrending valediction:

And like strained mercy sprung forth from Poseidon’s trident, a biblical and baptismal flood comes deus ex machina-cally crashing down upon him and washes away the mistakes of the past. An earnest salvation upon his fervent pleas of contrition.  Absolving him and revealing to us Everett: battered, bruised, but better for it. A changed man by the script’s last page.

The character relationships. These three fools and charlatans are a finely tuned ensemble of comedic craft. From our first glimpse of them, it’s a sad sight. They’re truly men of constant sorrow. A certain pathos of pity is taken on these wretched ne’er-do-well vagabonds. We’re introduced to them in chains and on the run and generally always a hair’s distance away from their next felony. But they still pilfer our sympathies. We like them. We root for them. Through their bumblings and bickerings. It’s an antebellum Three Stooges.

All that’s missing are a few well-placed nyuk nyuk nyuks.

So this script is a wealth of writerly wisdom when it comes to cleverly employing bygone source material and winnowing out something fresh and anew. The script’s stark and sepia-toned realism laced with laughs and coarse katzenjammers. So grab a gopher, dab a little smellum in your coiffure, and R-U-N-N-O-F-T to the library and have a go at this gorgeously garrulous script.

You’ll also need to ride a roll top desk to withstand the veritable deluge of new scripts that have just washed ashore our sagging shelves. The latest and greatest include:

  • All of the scripts for HBO’s bitingly beady-eyed dark comedy miniseries Big Little Lies created by David E. Kelley based upon the book by Liane Moriarty.
  • Starz’s fantasy-drama series American Gods based upon the novel by Neil Gaiman.
  • A clutch of season two scripts for Aziz Ansari’s Millennially mendacious Master of None.

Also, catalog, for your clicking druthers.

Shake a leg, Junior.  We’re bona fide.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Blossom Blossoms

It was the TV decade that brought us Boy Meets World, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and everything in between. It was the 1990s – and the same poignant, truthful focus that John Hughes brought to movies about teens and growing up in the 1980s seemed to gradually make its way to small screens. From sitcoms to one-hour dramas, TV shows from the 90s took a Hughes-ian cue and treated the subject of coming-of-age not with exaggeration, but with subtlety and seriousness, often finding honest humor as a meaningful by-product. Perhaps this is why those of us who literally came of age during the 1990s often look back on the decade with fondness (whether it was actually a great time to be alive or not).

Shows like these help us to recognize the lessons inherent in our own experience and offer us instruction on how to face the newness and scariness of getting older.

A particularly phenomenal example of “lessons-in-growing-up” TV is the second episode of the series Blossom. Entitled “Blossom Blossoms” and written by Racelle Rosett Shaefer, it was the first episode of the show to air when the show was ordered as a mid-season replacement by NBC in January of 1991. (Its pilot had already aired in July of the previous year). As a part of the 90s theme we’ve been exploring on our social media channels this week, I want to implore you to check out this script the next time you’re in the WGF Library.

The general gist: Blossom, an adolescent girl, being raised by her single musician father and two goofy older brothers starts her period… and she can find nobody to provide her with the understanding and instruction that she needs as she cycles out of girlhood and into womanhood.

The episode draws attention and gives gravitas to the uniquely feminine part of growing up, which up until this point was very often under or misrepresented or made out to be some kind of horror show (Carrie, anyone?). In fact, the subplot finds Blossom’s brothers, Joey and Anthony, making horror videos for school about things that can incite violence. As the story progresses, the episode lovingly references and subverts “The Carrie trope” and we learn with Blossom that one thing that isn’t violent or scary, but completely natural is getting one’s period – and it’s okay to talk about it.

I write in a previous post on this blog about Lisa Simpson trying to find somebody to understand her struggle with sadness and how her mother steps in to empathize and help at the 11th hour. What’s interesting about Blossom is that she doesn’t have a mother to give her instruction during this time. She has her father, her brothers, her best friend and an older woman named Agnes, who lives next door, but there’s nobody to give her the kind of support she really needs (or so she thinks). With her father and brothers, she’s afraid to even broach the subject.

It’s up to Blossom’s Father, Nick, to step in and zoom past his socially prescribed role and offer a kind of compassionate mothering to his kid. When Blossom gets up the nerve to tell her Dad she got her period, he sits her down and talks with her while attempting to braid her hair. He vocally celebrates that his daughter is getting older and encourages his sons to do the same. It’s sweet and almost revolutionary to see a rock star Dad avoid falling into the pitfalls of storytelling banality. He’s not on the road, having abandoned his family. He’s more than there for them.

With television writing like this, a critical part of growing up is not only brought to light, but championed. Girls get reinforcement that their experience is valid, learning that it’s okay to talk about their periods and ask for help when they need it, that it shouldn’t be something catastrophic, or to be ashamed of – and perhaps fathers, mothers, brothers, friends and chosen families too can find an example of how to support each other.

If you want more 90s teen-focused TV, be sure to peruse our catalog. Along with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, you can find:

A newly acquired draft of The Fifth Element by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen,

Season 3 of Starz’ Power,

and many, many episodes of 1980s detective procedural, Remington Steele.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Royal Tenenbaums

This week we inspect the sinking battleship of idiosyncratic eclecticism that is 2001’s comedy-drama The Royal Tenenbaums written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. This ostentatiously oddball screenplay is a finely tuned saga of a once-brilliant family undergoing a severe existential maelstrom. It’s your classic Miltonian tale of a tragicomic figure felled by hubris and finding the real drama in picking up the pieces and pursuing something like redemption. And the writers deliver this epic chronicle of seeking grace in the face of tragedy with a pinch-perfect sprinkle of absurdity and sapience. It’s a trenchant tumble of whimsical humor and emotional hurly-burlies.  

The writers corral a large ensemble cast of characters and dedicate just the right amount of screen time to each and every one. Having numerous main players can sometimes come off a little overwrought, unwieldy, and ultimately a tangle of under-developed entities we haven’t had enough time to adequately identify with. But with this script, the writers have managed to wring optimal empathy from this gaggle of alluring and flawed characters. It’s testament to the writing’s economy of language that it so accurately hits home with us and we sympathize and gravitate so to these charmingly crackpot characters. We pretty much have them precisely sized up from frame one:

The character that we’re forced to warm up to foremost is the grand patriarch himself, ol’ pappy Royal Tenenbaum. Life has dealt Royal some cruel blows. He’s the runner whom the race outran. Washed out and weary, he’s a blowhard braggart. He’s no-good and a proper villain and a crook. But we dote on him like an elderly uncle figure who is slowly coming to terms with the bastard he was in the past. It’s a theme that audiences can’t help but relate to. The idea of someone reckoning for the sins of yesteryear and seeking a sort of thwarted sense of reconciliation with his estranged family. Maybe we commiserate with Royal because there’s a little bit of his dogged determination in all of us to salvage ourselves and re-steer the ship toward the atolls of atonement.

There’s hope for the scoundrel yet.

He’s also just a bonafide badass. Getting more pleasantly petulant with age, he’s the last of the gentleman scallywags. He’s seen and done it all but still can’t quite get down the nuances of normal socially acceptable behavior. But one must proffer the proper plaudits for his acumen for diplomacy and intercultural experiences abroad.

The writing is top shelf and it becomes but all too apparent why this was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay along with moseying its way to the BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century. It’s a script that yanks every heart string taut and deflates both lungs with prolonged bouts of laughter. A tough writerly one-two to inflict and line to tip-toe. But all in all, a script definitely worth a damn.

Tinctured with tenderness, the tale of the Tenenbaums will relentlessly rouse your funny femur. So shag ass and galumph to our shelves and steal away into its pages for a spell. And feel free to take off your shoes and one of your socks and cry over how good this script is.

And when you’re done and dusted with The Royal Tenenbaums, there’re still heaps of fresh scripts all primed for you to plow your proboscis into. Such as every episode of Hulu’s runaway hit The Handmaid’s Tale. Or a helping of the comedic-stylings of The Red Skelton Show that ran for an inexhaustible two decades producing a dizzying and cancellation-defying 672 episodes. That’s legs.  

You’re also encouraged to drag a languid finger along our digital stacks for other assorted scriptly serenity.

Tad Mosel: From Golden Age TV to Calvin Coolidge High

Working at the WGF Library for the past few months has given me the opportunity to discover many writers whose names are new to me. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that one of these writers is the brilliant Tad Mosel, whose 1967 film Up the Down Staircase will screen this Sunday as part of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s film series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen,” co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. 

Tad Mosel was born in Ohio in 1922, but moved to New York at the age of nine. He developed an early interest in the theater, and went on to study drama at Amherst College, completing his degree after serving three years in the Army. After the war, Mosel attended Yale and Columbia, landed a non-speaking role in the 1949 Broadway show At War With the Army, and started writing plays. Along with so many other young writers at the time, Mosel heard that television producers were desperate for material, so he studied the shows on the air and began writing and submitting television scripts.

Cover photo of Tad Mosel from Other People’s Houses: Six Television Plays by Tad Mosel (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956)

Mosel finally found success in 1953, when several of his teleplays — including Ernie Barger is 50, Other People’s Houses, and The Haven — were produced for the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Mosel started working with producer Fred Coe, who became his mentor and close collaborator. This was the heyday of live television drama, and Mosel’s thoughtful character-centered stories were an ideal fit with the new medium. Over the next ten years, Mosel wrote many more original and adapted plays for television, including four for the prestigious anthology program Playhouse 90. Mosel also went back to the stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for his play All the Way Home, adapted from the novel A Death in the Family by James Agee.

Highly acclaimed for both his television and stage work, Mosel was a bit of a latecomer to the big screen, and in the end, had only two feature films produced. The first, Dear Heart (1964), was an adaptation of Mosel’s The Out-of-Towners, a television play that originally aired on Studio One in 1957. Directed by Delbert Mann, the movie version starred Geraldine Page as Evie Jackson, the lovelorn postmistress who falls for a traveling salesman played by Glenn Ford. (On television, the role of Evie was played by Eileen Heckart, a friend and frequent actress-collaborator of Mosel’s who also appears in Up the Down Staircase as Henrietta Pastorfield.)

The second film credit for Mosel was Up the Down Staircase, based on the first novel by Bel Kaufman, a longtime teacher who tapped into the zeitgeist with her brilliant account of life inside a public high school.  In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 1997, Mosel talked about getting the opportunity to write the screen adaptation of Kaufman’s runaway best-seller. He had been working on developing another project with producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan, and happened to be with the producing partners when they learned that Warner Bros. had won a bidding war and secured the rights to the Kaufman book for their company. Mosel recalled, “I was in the hotel room, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, when Alan and Bob got the rights. And the dears, they turned away from the telephone, and they said, ‘Will you write it?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I hadn’t even read it! But to work with those two men, I would have dramatized the telephone book.”

Soon however, Mosel realized he had a real challenge on his hands:

It was a tough job, it really was. The movie was very successful, but it was very hard to do. It was an epistolary novel. It was all letters and notes in wastebaskets and in suggestion boxes and directives from the Board of Education and from the library. There was no straight narrative except in some letters that the young teacher wrote to her friend.

Well, this was very hard to pull into a viable screenplay. And it was Bob one day who said, “The main character in this movie is a building. It’s Public School Number 181, whatever it is, Calvin Coolidge High School.” He said, “We will open with a medium shot of the school, we will close with a medium shot of the school, and between we will never leave the school. We will go to the corner so that you can see the leading character in the background. But we’ll spend most of the picture inside and the school will talk, it will make noises. Bells will ring. Doors will slam. Windows will break. And that was the basis on which we did the movie. And it was a wonderful basis, it really was. And it shows in the movie, because the movie has a wholeness to it, which it wouldn’t have if it didn’t have that solid, hideous building, that you were forced to look at about every ten minutes.

It worked. Mosel’s screenplay puts Calvin Coolidge High School front and center from page one, and almost makes you forget that all of the action is confined to the school building and the mean streets surrounding it. Here are the first two pages of Mosel’s script, which set the scene:

But it wasn’t only the building that had to be established as a character — it was also the teachers and students who showed up at school every day. Kaufman’s eclectic novel was made up of written communication of every form (letters, memos, notes, diary entries, circulars, directives), but by design it didn’t include descriptions of people and settings beyond what could be gleaned from those writings. Mosel had to find a way to create characters and situations and form them into a storyline while still capturing the chaotic spirit of the book, which was infused with both comedy and pathos.

One way that he did this was by going to the source. In his oral history, Mosel said that he “had to spend a lot of time in ghetto schools in New York City, visiting and listening to kids, because we had 300 of them in the movie. I wrote all through the filming, because I would hear the kids say something and I would want to get it into the screenplay.” This willingness to express what kids are really saying and thinking, from their own point of view, closely mirrors what Bel Kaufman accomplished in her book, and shows why Tad Mosel was an inspired choice to write the screenplay for the film. His empathy for all of the characters — the teachers, the students, even the administrators — comes through on every page. This is especially true in the scenes where Sylvia Barrett struggles to make a connection with her students, both individually and in class, as well as in the painful love letter scene between the heartbroken Alice Blake and the arrogant Mr. Barringer.

Of course, Bel Kaufman’s book was first and foremost a critique of a system that puts paperwork and regulations over people, and the film needed to incorporate in a good number of the ridiculous edicts that Kaufman lampooned so expertly. Mosel doesn’t let Kaufman’s readers down in this department. The petite Sandy Dennis, who plays Sylvia Barrett, is buried in paper from the first moment she walks into the office and punches her time card, and Mosel makes sure that Sylvia and her fellow teachers are constantly besieged with forms, reports, applications, permission slips and other useless items that need to be filed with the harried school secretary. All of that detail pays off in Mosel’s satisfying final scene, when Sylvia tears up that resignation form and heads up the down staircase. In the end, things aren’t perfect — but maybe they’re getting better.

If you would like to spend some time reading Tad Mosel’s remarkable work, visit us at the Writers Guild Foundation Library. In addition to the screenplays for Up the Down Staircase and Dear Heart, our collection includes Mosel’s published teleplays, as well as scripts for three of his Playhouse 90 episodes. I also highly recommend taking a look at Mosel’s Archive of American Television interview.

READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES

On June 2, 2013, the WGA announced its list of 101 Best Written TV Shows as voted on by the Guild’s membership. On April 28, 2017, one of our amazing library patrons Christina Irion finished reading at least one script from every available show on the list. After giving her a moment to rest her eyes and brain, we asked Christina to tell us what she learned from the experience. In this post, she shares ten highlights, offering a glimpse into TV storytelling, network history and how to make exceptional use of your friendly Writers Guild Foundation Library.

 

TEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES

by Christina L. Irion

Every time I popped into the WGF library I noticed a list hanging on the wall by the front glass doors. With 101 titles, these television shows were voted the best-written series of all time. Seeking to broaden my knowledge and challenge myself—with zero awareness of the commitment I just made—I decided to read the entire “101 Best Written Series.”

Over countless hours (with encouragement from the librarians and forced coffee breaks), I tackled the list from 101 all the way down to number one. Reading the pilot, or the earliest materials I could find from each show, I also created my own nerdy chart to track each script. Below are the top 10 things I learned.

 

1.   Cha- Cha – Cha – Changes

The top 101 series are categorized by top-voted writing before June 2013. This meant that in one day I could read scripts with a wider age gap than Gloria and Jay on Modern Family. In reading scripts from different decades, I found it interesting to see how scripts and shows have changed over time.

From teleplays in the ’50s to HBO dramas in the late 2000s, I found discrepancies in the amount of dialogue and number of act breaks in the scripts. Specifically in comedies, I noticed a change over time that resulted in more act breaks per episode and a quicker pace.

For example, Family Ties (Multi-cam) and Modern Family (Single cam) are both ABC comedies set decades apart. Structurally they are very different. While Family Ties is broken into only 2 acts with about 3 scenes in each act, Modern Family’s pilot is broken into 4 acts and a tag with about 9 scenes in each act. As a control in this experiment, I also tested this structure-change with scripts from Friends, comparing scripts from Season 1 to Season 10. I noticed that while each Friends script is broken into two acts, there are more scenes in Season 10 verses Season 1.  

Going back to comparing Family Ties and Modern Family, there is a huge difference in scene length. In the Season 2 Family Ties episode “Not an Affair to Remember” the script is comprised of far more pages and dialogue per scene – usually about 7-10 pages of dialogue. Modern Family has a quicker pace with most long scenes lasting between 2-3 pages.

I think this shows the shift in the way people absorb media and possibly indicates the added time for commercial breaks around the story.

 

2.  Top Producers and Writers – Starting To Make That Web

One of the best things about reading the scripts was learning about key players in the history of television. I knew my favorite writers and executive producers from my top shows—Tina Fey, Michael Shur, Ricky Gervais—but the list allowed me to branch out and discover more. With each series, I kept digging. I learned about different producers and writers and gained an understanding of projects they previously worked on, their collaborators and their sensibilities.

For example, one of the most-represented writers on the list was James L. Brooks. He dominates the top 101 with three hit shows, two of which I knew, the third of which surprised me. I knew of him from hit comedies like Taxi and The Simpsons. I was surprised that he also topped the list for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had never looked into his filmography in depth, but I quickly hopped onto IMDB and saw that his other credits ranged from The Tracey Ullman Show to, surprisingly, Terms of Endearment.  

As I read the top 101 list, my own list of favorite writers and producers grew. I began to understand a larger network of show creators and developed a web of their work.  If you want to be either a writer or development executive, the top 101 list and the WGF library can help you study the top influencers throughout TV history.

 

3.  Whoa, This Used To Be Like That?

A few of the top shows on the list have been on the air for decades. What is on screen today looked a lot different 25 years ago. Like looking at your mother’s old high school yearbook photos, I found it fascinating to read past scripts and compare them to the present-day version.

Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and The Muppets stand out the most with this phenomenon. Over decades, writers change, society shifts, and comedy transforms, so it is not surprising that formal writing style fluctuates because of this. I will say, though, that side by side – the comparison is jarring. For example, the older generation of Sesame Street seems like a slightly weird cousin to its current version.

Comparing a Sesame Street episode from the ’80s to the 2000s, there is an obvious change in how the segments are broken up and who is highlighted in those segments.  In the 80’s version, there were shorter segments and less dialogue (the font was MUCH larger) while the 2000’s version was comprised of long scenes with more emphasis on the celebrity guest. Perhaps Sesame Street made its programming longer to combat quick-paced programming that encourages shorter attention spans.

Comparing these scripts from different decades was an interesting way to see how shows can morph over time to better appeal to a current audience.

 

4.   Which Network Reigned Supreme?

One of the biggest draws for me to read the top 100 list was to track the shows and their networks/cable companies. If anyone is development-driven, reading and studying the top 101 shows is a great way to see what types of programming each network/cable channel is known for, which production companies/writers they have worked with, and how each show fits into overall brands and missions.   

It was no surprise that NBC, CBS, and ABC had the most top shows (they have been around the longest, to be fair), but their show genres differed. NBC’s best-written series consisted of large-cast comedies and procedurals like Cheers, 30 Rock, ER and Law & Order. CBS’s top shows tended to be variety shows surrounding comedic actors like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show.  

Knowing the history of each network and cable outlet seems like an extremely helpful tool when shopping scripts and ideas. By doing research, a writer can show that their outline or script will fit well with what the cable/network strives for in their shows.

 

5.   “Young, Attractive Female..”

When reading the list, I tried to read mostly pilots. I wanted to get a good idea of how each show introduced its story. This meant reading hundreds of character introductions. One character introduction that became way too familiar was “[INSERT NAME] a young, attractive female”.

Repeatedly this was how background, secondary, and main female characters were introduced. While I saw this dissipate in the newer scripts, it was jarring to see how often appearance had to be added as a qualifier for women in these scripts. Not to say that “attractive male” wasn’t also seen, but there was a definitive, overall sense that the female characters had to also be “attractive” to be interesting and catch the eyes of the characters around them.

 

6.   New Found Favorites

The top 101 list has a LARGE variety of genres, formats, and styles and is a fantastic way to broaden one’s taste in scripts. I found gems I never thought I would enjoy. The list opened my eyes to new genres and shows I would not have read otherwise.

Northern Exposure, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Playhouse 90 were all fantastic shows that previously slipped under my radar or were set aside in favor of familiar shows and genres. Each show featured amazing writing that I look forward to sitting down and scrolling through again.

7.   Script To Screen – “That Seems…Different”

Only by reading material from the top 101 list did I notice that that the screen and script versions of certain shows could seem vastly different.

For example, on the page, the pilot for Twin Peaks seemed like a fast-paced mystery. When I finally watched the show, I was surprised that on screen it felt slower, more dramatic, and reminiscent of a soap opera.

It goes to show how much power a director (or maybe just David Lynch) has in carrying the script to the screen.

8.   “This Is The First Draft ?”

Because scripts go through many drafts from first pitch to pilot, characters names may change, there can be different exposition, even characters’ actions can be changed. Many series at the WGF library have at least two versions of the pilot available. For my favorite shows like The Office (U.S) and Game of Thrones, I read both versions and wow, they were different.

The first version of The Office (U.S) is very similar to its British predecessor, which makes lovable prankster, Jim, look like that creepy jerk at the party. In all honesty, first-pilot Jim wouldn’t have fans rooting for a Jim-Pam romance.

Game of Thrones was rewritten and reshot after the first filming of its pilot episode. The focus of the beginning is pretty different which should make any super-fan curious to see what the earlier draft looked like.

It was eye-opening to see first-hand how development notes can change the pivotal beginnings of our favorite shows. It makes one wonder how the series would look if it weren’t for those notes.

 

9.   Which Came First: Culture or the TV Show?

In the top 101 list, there are shows that take place in varied cities with characters of different races, religions, social statuses, sexuality, and identities. One of the most interesting parts about reading through the list was diving into a different world with every script. I think a lot of the shows were chosen because they had a social commentary to make within their 22 – 60 pages that was not explored in previous shows.

From The Wonder Years to Roots to The Wire, the series’ writers show their audience different viewpoints of history and also put a spotlight on characters and societies overlooked in mainstream pop culture.

For example, when Roots was released in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon hitting some of the highest Nielson ratings at the time.* The multiple night, mini-series was unexpected and families across the United States tuned in every night to see the story of Kunta Kinte and the generations after him. Roots was an example of a different take on Black television that unapologetically showed the harsh reality of American History. The onscreen portrayal of America’s brutal past in Alex Haley’s novel was a stark difference from the other African American sitcoms at the time. A Newsday Review article from 1977 praised Roots’s educational approach to black culture and ancestry by stating Roots goes deeper into explaining black family life than “What’s Happening.”

It really behooves any reader of this list to read some of these scripts and contemplate: “Did culture influence television or did television influence culture?”

 

10.   Off to the Races

Time to sound like every ’50s TV mom giving a life lesson when I say, “Like any other muscle, the brain also needs a bit of practice and exercise.” Whether you read scripts for a living now or want to in the future, reading this list in its entirety quickens reading speed and helps you gauge your reading time. Soon the mountain of scripts will seem a lot less daunting.

It became easier to read more scripts with each visit to the library. With thousands of pages to read, there’s not only speed to be gained but brainpower to be strengthened by taking on the Top 101 challenge.

Overall, reading the top list was beneficial in so many ways. I feel like I broadened my mind, became a better reader, and got to understand so much more about the industry I love. I would highly suggest reading down this list as a personal challenge to continue learning and growing.  

Whether you decide to tackle the list or read your favorite show, know one thing: the librarians know best. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from and it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what exactly you are looking for.

Javier, Hilary, Lauren, and the rest of the librarians are happy to share fan favorites as well as their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions because you can find some of your favorite scripts that way. I know that was true for me. 

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Horton Foote on the Big Screen

Johnny Cash cited FRANKENSTEIN (1931) as one of his favorite films. Speaking of his empathy for the title character, he claimed to be fascinated by a man/monster “made up of bad parts but trying to do good.”

Not coincidentally, tales of men and women “made up of bad parts but trying to do good” run completely rampant through the lyrics and musical leitmotifs of roots and country music. From Johnny Cash to present-day artists like Kacey Musgraves or Chris Stapleton, the genre is filled to the brim with self-loathing average joes, small town loneliness and alienation, the idea of disappointing one’s mama, trying to burn out personal demons and pain through vices like whiskey and beer, then the quiet desire found in a tank of gas and speeding along down the road to move on.

Right now you might be thinking: I’m a screenwriter. This is a blog dedicated to film and TV writing. What on earth does this post have to do with me?

A quote often attributed to Hank Williams is that country music is simply “Three chords and the truth.” Could it be that film, TV or any other form of dramatic storytelling isn’t all that different? Just substitute the word “chords” for “acts.” It’s on this note, that I’d like to put forth a contention that hopefully doesn’t seem too outrageous.

If Johnny Cash can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in the movies, then screenwriters can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in country and roots music. Of course, this can be achieved by pulling out Waylon Jennings, Staple Singers or Emmylou Harris records, listening to the lyrics, aching pedal steel solos and cyclical banjo breaks that conjure images of dirt roads and juke joints, but it can also be achieved by studying one of country music’s greatest screenwriters.

His name is Horton Foote. You might know of him as the two-time Oscar-winning writer of TENDER MERCIES (1983) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), but in this blogger’s mind, he’s actually a country musician who deals in sluglines instead of baselines.

Horton Foote, photo by William B. Winburn (Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters from the 1960s by Pat McGilligan, University of California Press.)

Well, actually, he considered himself more of a playwright who occasionally wrote for TV and film.

Indeed, he was prolific in his work for the stage, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995). Perhaps it was in the theater, with its emphasis on cycles and revisiting certain themes again and again where Horton Foote developed the ideas and flourishes that would come to make his particular kind of storytelling so recognizable on screens big and small.

When one sees certain impressionistic paintings, one probably associates them with Monet… When I see certain quiet movies that put across the same pain and authenticity as a good country song, I think of Horton Foote.

The Trip to the Bountiful (1985), Screenplay by Horton Foote based on his play

Born in Wharton, Texas in 1916, Foote eventually settled in New York City, where he became a dramatist after studying method acting. Even though he wrote plays, TV and movies, like any great country/roots musician, he never shook his small-town, southern home and it became something he tried to explore and stay connected to through his writing. Home is a repeated theme throughout his work. Like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or John Steinbeck, he tended to write about the same place in his stories, eliciting in his audience a sense of longing for the heart of Texas or Alabama – even in people who never visited those places. It’s a feeling similar to that which comes from hearing Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton.

“Foote weaves his melodrama into the plain cloth of everyday events,”

wrote New York Times Theatre Critic Ben Brantley in a review in 2010. His stories often follow damaged, rejected people looking to flee or redeem themselves from some misdoing, demon or detriment, then finding makeshift families and a sense of community to get through that dull sense of alienation that often goes hand-in-hand with small-town existence.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Screenplay by Horton Foote, Based on the novel by Harper Lee

Fascinated by what he called the “dailiness” of everyday life, his characters are gas station clerks, farmers or store owners – people who are meager of word, but overflowing with feeling and unspoken dreams and wants. He focuses on the scar and how the character tries to heal it rather than over-saturating us with the event that left it there. It’s not difficult to view his plays and films as the living, blood-fueled embodiment of the characters put forth in a Johnny Cash song – sutured together from bad parts and trying to be good.

Tender Mercies (1983), Written by Horton Foote

His plain cloth, personal but rural style of playwriting proved to be a natural fit for a new, burgeoning medium called “television” in the 1950s and 60s. Because of television’s smaller budgets and need to shoot quickly on sound stages, it was predicted that writers with scaled-back, character-based proclivities would meet with success – and that’s just what happened for Foote and his contemporaries like Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel.

It’s compelling to think that the same seeds that influenced the storytelling in American roots music might – by way of writers like Horton Foote – have sailed their way into the genesis of American television and, later, American film… then later still into the gelatinous hybrid of forms that’s found on streaming platforms today. I think that, in some roundabout way, country music helped solidify what we view as tenets of any kind of great American writing.

See these tenets in action with UCLA Film & Television Archive’s screening series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen.” The little-seen, Foote-penned TOMORROW (1972) is showing Sunday, August 6th at 7pm at the Billy Wilder Theater. The series is co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. WGA members get free admission.

Tomorrow (dir. Joseph Anthony, 1972)

Until there exists a book or Screenwriting course based entirely in country and roots music, watching Robert Duvall as a soft-spoken farmer who takes in a young pregnant woman in Mississippi (based on a William Faulkner short story and Foote’s play of the same name) is the best place to experience exactly what I’m talking about.

Oh, and as always, stop by the WGF Library to read the newest additions to our catalog. This week we’ve added the script for summer’s most wonderful superhero flick WONDER WOMAN and the Netflix Original Series GLOW, unofficially making us the coolest non-circulating library in town!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Miller’s Crossing

What’s the rumpus, readers?

Today we bob and weave bullets from a bootlegger’s roscoe and have a low-lit and chiaroscuro look at Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1990 neo-noir crime one-two Miller’s Crossing. There’s a wealth of lessons to be glommed from this screenplay. The characters are complex and despicably charismatic and the plot is elegantly entangled and peppered to perfection with daffy dames, priggish palookas, and fire-belching Tommy guns. It’s got it all, yah yeggs.

The characters are world-class finks. Detestable but always endearingly so. We have our protagonist Tom Reagan who sees all the angles but drinks like a fish and can’t lay off the ponies and is just your all-around no-good heel. But underneath the layers of immoral slime, Tom proves to be in possession of a wide assortment of laudable qualities. He’s loyal and adheres to a strict code. And smart. He’s whip-smart and irrepressibly a creature of logic and strategy. And commands an icy demeanor that can’t be ruffled despite being a perpetual punching bag a majority of the movie. It’s testament to his grit. And it’s why we’re rooting for him from word go. All the cynicism, shortcomings, and foibles and all.

It’s little wonder why we’re so enamored with this lump of a goon. He slangs all the best one-liners. All delivered with churlish cool comportment and diamond-precision comic timing. Tom’s all slow-burning ire and irreverence morning, noon, and night. A consummate example of grace under fire.

In these scenes he’s shaking off a particularly vicious hangover and still manages to brandish a biting bon mot or two.

All in all, not a bad guy.

It’s a screenplay that demands repeat readings. After the umpteenth thumb-thru you’re still walking away with mounds of newly discovered writerly insights. What the writers do here with language is superb. It’s English, sure, but not quite. The Coens employ this sort of antiquated pidgin palaver that just rings resoundingly authentic to audience ears. It’s both mellifluous and barking mad. And I can’t get enough of it.

Another strength this script commands in spades is the character interactions. The back-and-forths crackle like staccato machine gun fire and our ears just buzz with joy at the rhythms. In one scene we have Tom verbally sparring with Leo insouciantly speaking of broken legs. The scene just hums with playful impertinence.

It’s a script that is very mindful of the genre that it is paying homage to and borderline exaggerating at times. It’s painfully self-aware of itself and it’s but all too apparent within its pages how much respect the Coens have for the hardboiled cliches and conventions of noir. It’s rigorously self-referential as it plucks the best qualities from the film noir and gangster films of the past and lumps it all together into something that has its own voice and velocity. Miller’s Crossing stalwartly takes its place among the pantheon of great dark crime-caper films of yesteryear such as The Godfather, Double Indemnity, and The Big Sleep.

So raise a glass to Volstead and dangle on over to sip generously from this gimlet of a script.

And when you’re sick of the high hat, come coo too over these other newly acquired screenplays in our library’s collection:

  • The sun-soaked 2017 screenplay of Baywatch written by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift.
  • 2010’s action-comedy Knight and Day penned by Patrick O’Neill.
  • David Lynch’s 1984 epic science-fiction opus Dune. Critically maligned upon release but a constant cult classic that still bewilders and bifurcates opinion today.
  • Fox Searchlight Pictures’ newly released comedy-drama Gifted written by Tom Flynn.
  • The Emmy-winning Seinfeld episode “The Contest” written by the always ignoble Larry David.

If none of these strike your fancies, then have a twirl and a tumble through our ever growing online catalog.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Dick Tracy on the Radio

He wears a bright yellow fedora and trench coat, has razor-sharp intuition and, working with a merry band of sidekicks, employs gadgets (including his famous two-way wristwatch radio) to track down wrongdoers and miscreants in the wake of violent crimes.

He’s Dick Tracy, of course, and since his creation by Chester Gould and subsequent debut on the newspaper pages of the Detroit Mirror in 1931, he’s been the subject of all manner of serialized storytelling including films, live-action and animated TV series, radio shows and, first and foremost, comic strips. He’s one of America’s most recognizable and longest serving private eyes.

With all his recurrent sleuthing, we might contend that Tracy is a kind of grandfather to the modern-day, long-running detective or cop procedural. It’s this contention I’d specifically like to give pause to this week. The WGF Library recently processed a small bounty of radio show scripts from the mid-1940s. Many of these scripts, including The Dick Tracy Show, were written by Sidney Slon, who also famously served as head writer for the gritty and seminal pulp radio series, The Shadow.

Listeners could hear Dick Tracy’s adventures on the radio starting in 1934. The gumshoe’s grizzled voice continued to emanate over airwaves through the 1950s with the show switching networks, sponsors and lengths throughout its audible existence. The scripts in the WGF Library are specifically from 1945 and 1946 when the show aired on ABC in 30-minute segments and was proudly sponsored by Tootsie Roll.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

In our world of over-saturation with all kinds of media vying desperately for our attention, it can be an informative relief to step back in time and examine a very direct, uncluttered mode of storytelling like radio. Library patrons with the ambition to create distinct, enduring characters whose exploits audiences continue to care about for decades, will find fundamental writing lessons exposed in the pages of these serialized radio capers.

On a warm Wednesday last week, I decided to peruse one of these scripts and found several things worth sharing, which hopefully will spur your imagination when you sit down to create your own nail-biting drama, whatever the form may be.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

Just like today’s most compelling cop, detective, medical and other procedural shows, each Dick Tracy episode starts with a BANG! – usually literally.

It’s a bang we’d like to see resolved by the end of the episode – and it’s usually carried out by an obscenely un-likeable criminal or thug. It’s characters like Dick Tracy who provide us a kind of wish-fulfillment – that when bad things happen, we can figure out not only whodunit and how it happened, but also bring the morally in-the-wrong party to satisfying justice. In fact, the more unjust the situation at the top of the episode and the meaner the villain, the more truly gratifying it is to see the hero step up and fix things.

Dick Tracy is a unique kind of detective hero. He’s somewhat of a mug himself, which is why (tactically) he’s able to get inside the heads of the criminals he’s tracking and take them down. He might have the Al Capone look, but his heart and sense of making things right make him different and endlessly fascinating.

Dick Tracy, Mystery of the Wooden Bullet (Comic)

However, a radio hero can only be contradictory and compelling insofar as he has other characters to talk to. A common practice in the radio serial is to give the main character a sidekick or someone to explain things to along the way, so that the listening audience not only has a sense of the story, but also of the feelings of the protagonist. A necessity in radio is to make the characters speak and sound differently enough so that the audience can easily distinguish which character is talking. This is a tenet worthy of consideration even if you are writing for a visual medium. The person reading your script won’t have the visual cues to tell your characters apart, so it’s helpful to give even the smallest of characters a unique voice and cadence.

See the following examples featuring Tracy’s accomplice and a woman selling newspapers from The Case of the Nightclub Singer (1945)

Finally, Alfred Hitchcock used to famously explain that a scene between two people talking at a table will become infinitely more suspenseful if the camera pans down and we see a ticking bomb underneath the table. What do you do if you’re writing for radio and you want to generate the same amount of suspense, but you have no camera to show the bomb? In radio, verbal threats and contracts become integral to raising stakes. The hero and the villain make declarative statements, such as “If you don’t bring the money to this place, by this time, this person will be hurt,” etc., setting up anticipation of a horrible event or showdown in the audience’s mind. The characters then must continually verbally remind each other how time is running out.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

There’s a smattering of Dick Tracy Show radio scripts sitting behind the main library desk, see? And if you don’t get here before we close today to read and learn from them, your script will suffer… gradually and painfully.

Well, maybe not, but you should still browse our catalog, stop by and read newly processed scripts including:

  • Every episode from every season of Girls.
  • Screenplays from The Nutty Professor (1996) and Anchorman (2004).
  • A few episodes of Freaks and Geeks.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: There Will Be Blood

This week we’ll fix our screenwriterly sights upon and scrutinize Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 historical-drama There Will Be Blood. This is the go-to script if you’re looking to craft nigh-irredeemable and despicable anti-heroes that enrapture and cannily capture your attention throughout. One’s fingertips start to smoke as you can’t thumb to the last page fast enough.

The script regales the Faustian cautionary tale of a self-made oilman and his unscrupulous rise to success. A profile of a man propelled by all-consuming oil gluttony. Trampling any sense of decency or moral redemption as our protagonist, Daniel Plainfield, gallops to the apex of capitalistic gain.

An inextinguishable conflagration burns within the man. And threatens to engulf him fully.

And his appetites for more and more pave his descent and eventual downfall.

The screenwriter taps into time-tested tropes and brings us a tragic figure of Citizen Kane-ian proportions. Daniel Plainfield is an overly ambitious man. A fascinating figure who has eagerly exchanged his humanity for an excess of wealth and financial might. Plainview is avaristic and single-focused to the point of near villainous caricature. But under that artifice of undiluted evil, we’re given glimpses of the character’s complexity and can start to glean glimmers of dissonance that run contrary to his worse money-hungry qualities. Despite his many dissolute shortcomings, we’d be remiss to not recognize his praiseworthy attributes: The sense of familial responsibility, his unflagging work ethic, and his nous for resourcefulness. He’s still a brazen bastard. But you can’t help but to sympathize with the reprobate a bit. And take pity upon this slouched beast hamstrung by greed, cravenness, and paranoia.

In this one particular scene, Daniel displays an avuncular protectiveness toward a little girl he learns is being mistreated by her father Abel. It’s these rare glimpses of virtue that keep him from being totally written off as completely forsaken and morally unsalvageable.

The script boasts a wide array of other capable characteristics along with the strong character development. The dialogue crackles with historical certitude. A meticulous attention to detail is evident from the exchanges. It’s unmistakably veracious and lends a real aura of authenticity to the verboseness of the piece. The characters speak with a particular patois that reflects a convincing credibility to the era we’re inhabiting for 130 pages. The scenes bristle with the evocative slang of the zeitgeist. And it’s a medley to the ears.

Slurp up this lulu of a line. A certified classic.

The script sits in the cavernous wells of our library. Waiting for you to strike it rich with new writerly acumen. It’s a welcome bowling pin cudgel to the cranium for any shrewd screenwriter worth their salt. A gushing derrick of delights.

And when you’re done wallowing around in the moral muck, have a go at these scads of screenplays newly arrived in our scriptly stockpile:

  • National Geographic’s Genius about the life and times of Albert Einstein.
  • Well-received romantic-comedy The Big Sick penned by husband and wife writer duo Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.
  • 2009’s animated jamboree Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller based upon the children’s classic written by Judi and Ron Barrett.
  • Quentin Tarantino’s samurai swashbuckling dosey-doe Kill Bill Vol 2.

And if none of these scintillating nonesuch scripts strikes the fancies, then feel free to dilly-dally around our database until something does.

I’m finished too.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Moaning Lisa

New amongst the WGF Library’s collection of TV show bibles and development materials is a thin packet entitled,The Simpsons: Episode Guide and Storylines (Season 8).” While this 1997 packet consists mostly of brief synopses of every season 8 episode, it also features vivid character profiles as well as rules for writing the show. Looking over this document, I internalized one thing — that the creative possibilities for The Simpsons are literally endless so long as the characters are true to their nature and to their relationships with one-another. In fact, it’s this particular notion that inspired my cavalcade of musings this week.

As any prolific writer knows, having a solid understanding of as many stories as possible can be supremely helpful. Why? Cultivating a reservoir of plot points, characters, arcs and themes that move you can only give you more to draw on when you embark on your own pen-wielding excursions.

The Simpsons is proof of this. Using their titanium-solid characters and staying true to them, the writers have been able to draw on myths, legends, other TV episodes, plays, tabloid stories, hearsay, current events and anything else you can possibly think of to create their own funny and poignant episodes of television (and for nearly thirty years). The idea of creating sturdy, compelling characters and putting them through a wealth of tried and true plots and stories is what I really want to focus on here.

For me, a script that really illustrates the power of this phenomenon is Moaning Lisa.

Written by Mike Reiss & Al Jean as a part of the show’s first season, the episode dates back to when the series had an imperative to, in addition to lampoon current events, establish meaningful relationships within the Simpson family.

The first beat of the first scene tells us exactly what this particular episode is drawing on.

Using the bleakness of Ingmar Bergman, the writers weave the tale of an existential crisis. What makes this episode inventive is the character experiencing that crisis. I’m not sure how many sitcoms about families up to this point ever featured a 2nd-grade girl in a funk over the emptiness of the American dream or life’s ultimate meaninglessness, but in this episode, Lisa Simpson has some big weighty questions getting her down — questions that nobody in her family or at school can seem to answer.

This blogger appreciates centering the story around a young girl who is experiencing depression — and not just depression over something like being rejected by a boy or failing to be popular — but a real experiential pickle, which young women can experience just as acutely, as, say, men approaching mid-life.

The episode finds movement in how Lisa fails to stumble upon anybody who can help her. The kids at school think she’s strange; the teachers don’t get her desire to be-bop on the saxophone during band practice or her inability to dodge balls in gym class. She eventually meets the great Springfield jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy who encourages her sax playing, but can’t offer her a cure for her blues.

As in any great coming-of-age story, it’s the character who seems to understand the least who ultimately ends-up helping out the most. Marge, at first, has advice that seems hopelessly destructive to what Lisa is going through:

What’s brilliant about this monologue is that even as we’re reading it, we can tell it hurts Marge to say these words and that perhaps she relates to Lisa on a greater level than she lets on — that she doesn’t believe this advice even though it was passed down to her from her mother. What a fantastic screenwriting lesson that Marge never outrightly states: Lisa I know what you’re going through. Rather, we as the audience infer it. We especially infer it in the action that Marge takes next.

She watches how offering a fake smile and repressing her true feelings actually hurts Lisa when she interacts again with peers and teachers. With not an ounce of hesitation, Marge whisks her daughter back into her car and offers her some of the greatest parenting ever:

And that’s the essence of rock-solid character — doing right by somebody else even if it runs counter to the philosophies that were imprinted on you when you were a young Marge.

Oh, and Homer experiences his own Bergman-esque version of playing chess with death as he keeps getting pounded by Bart at a boxing videogame, leading him too to contemplate getting older and his own mortality.

Moaning Lisa is the perfect read if you have but 30 minutes to spare in the library for it inspires asking big questions of yourself like: If I were going to write my own version of an existential crisis story, who would be my subject and what would they learn? Who would they learn it from?

The WGF Library exists to help you do what The Simpsons does so well — develop your own poignant, true characters and draw on a pantheon of stories and storytelling to create relatable adventures to put them through.

Search our catalog and stop on by, won’t you?

Here’s what’s new:

  • The complete first season of Animal Kingdom on TNT
  • John Carpenter and Nick Castle’s Escape from New York
  • A handful of scripts from Disney’s Doug
  • Season 2 scripts from HBO’s Ballers