WGF Summer of Screenplays: Our Five Favorite Horror Films

With warm temperatures upon us and TV fellowship deadlines passed, we’ve noticed that many of our library users are interested in reading feature screenplays. Thus, we’ve started a Summer blog series dedicated to recommending our favorite films and scripts across a myriad of genres and topics to give you inspiration for your next perusal of our shelves. This week, everyone’s favorite Library Manager Javier Barrios scares up his five favorite horror films.

Michael Gingold, managing editor and then editor-in-chief for 20 years of Fangoria Magazine (It’s okay if you’ve never heard of the publication) famously said, “1979 was the year horror became mainstream again with the premiere of Alien.” That comment seems true since a slew of notable (and not so notable) horror films followed. Their titles are recognizable even to those who’ve never actually seen them—Evil Dead, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street, just to name a few.

Since the birth of film, the horror genre has risen and fallen repeatedly in popularity. It has been said that horror films are truly great when times in society aren’t so great. Today, even with hit titles such as The Conjuring, A Quiet Place and Get Out, it’s not exactly clear if horror is “back” or not, but one thing that seems constant throughout time is that a well-reviewed (and scary) horror film almost always manages to draw a crowd. With that spirit in mind, I thought I’d talk a little bit about 5 horror films that seem to fit these criteria.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer

Caligari has many claims to fame. It is considered to be the very first true horror film (Nosferatu was released two years later). The film is also credited as being the quintessential example of German Expressionism. Expressionism, with its non-realistic sets, crazy geometrical angles and painted walls and floors representing both shadows and light, is said to have paved the way for film noir in the United States. To me, the most interesting aspect of this cinematic gem is that it contains one of the first twists in cinema. Twists are a ploy used in many horror/thrillers and I won’t spoil this one by revealing it here.

The Omen (1976) – Written by David Seltzer

Taking a cue from the element that made Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist so deliciously frightful, The Omen contains one of the scariest ingredients you can possibly use in this genre—Satan. I mean, doesn’t everything evil come from or lead to hell and Satan? The scene where the nanny commits suicide—apparently commanded by Satan—is one of the creepiest and disturbing scenes in horror. But to me, the most interesting aspect of this film is that—even though the script was commissioned—writer David Seltzer is still credited with an original screenplay. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you look at almost any credit from horror films during the 60s and 70s, most of them were based on novels.

Halloween (1978) – Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

A good friend of mine claims that he watches Halloween once a year. Before I can catch myself saying, “That’s weird,” I realize I sort of do too. This same friend calls Halloween a “horror machine,” and he’s right. That’s exactly what this film is. The film doesn’t bother wasting time setting up how Michael Myers got to Haddonfield after he escaped. Somehow, he’s just able to drive a car 150 miles (having never driven a car before) to start his killing spree. But we don’t care, because from the moment he begins to stalk Laurie to the final frame of the film, we are literally at the edge of our seats. And even though this script was written some 40 years ago, it reads very modern with little description but lots of suspense.

The Lost Boys (1987) – Screenplay by Janice Fischer & James Jeremias and Jeffrey Boam; Story by Janice Fischer & James Jeremias

It’s quirky—funny at times, scary at times. It’s kind of a mess, but ultimately, it’s The Lost Boys! What more can you say? The style of this film is spectacular and if you were a teenager in 1987, you definitely went to see this film and loved it… or thought you loved it. To me, the most notable aspect of this movie is that it’s 80s nostalgia at its absolute purest. One could say, it had the look!

The Conjuring (2013) – Written by Chad Hayes & Carey W. Hayes

Aside from it being one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen (with a surprisingly emotional scene thrown somewhere in there), what I found most impressive is how the writers, who are twin brothers, were able to keep the action and scares confined to the house. There’s a lot of talk these days about keeping things contained (I assume for budgetary reasons), and this is a great example of how to do that, but with honors. They use every nook and cranny of that big old house and managed to freak out enough people to launch a franchise.

The next time you have 10+ free hours, go ahead and watch some of these gems. Or better yet, come read the scripts right here in the library!

Sweet dreams! – Javier

5 Tips for Studying Scripts

If you’re aspiring to become a writer (or perhaps aspiring to become a better one), some of the most helpful advice you’ll ever receive sits in plain sight at the WGF Library. You just have to know where to look.

Hint: Look at the cork board directly to the right of the glass door when you exit. Tacked there, is a three-page document entitled “Notes on Writing by Gene Roddenberry.” In it, Mr. Star Trek himself lays out a simple, personal manifesto on what it takes to learn the craft and persist as a screen storyteller.

Here’s a passage:

In the early stage of my career, I began outlining every television play or motion picture or novel I had seen. In the outlines, I would try to analyze what caught my interest, why I identified with a certain person, why that person became important to me, what needs kept me intrigued, how the story built to a climax, and so on. While doing this, I continued to write my thousand words a day… and more of it crap than I care to remember. One day, some of it began to come together, and I found myself becoming able to read my own work and criticize it as if it were someone else’s.

I share this because Mr. Roddenberry has a point. That’s why we keep his wise words posted to the wall.

The Billy Wilder Reading Room reminds me of a high school dissection lab. Except here, people aren’t cutting into rats or cats, they’re dissecting scripts. They’re hunched over our Grant Tinker / MTM Writers’ Room Table reading everything from Casablanca to episodes of Atlanta, trying to catch a glimpse of the inner workings, trying to figure out what makes it tick, trying to find inspiration.

To know how to create a blueprint for what will become a movie or TV show, a screenwriter must become intimately familiar with such blueprints. A screenwriter must study scripts.

And just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there’s not really a wrong way to study a script. There are, however, a few practices you can abide by to respect the work of fellow writers, to respect the integrity of the profession and to really ensure that you gain something from the experience. When you find yourself lucky enough to get your hands on a script that speaks to you (either in our library or someplace else), here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it.


When you sit down with a script, focus on how the writer uses words and technique to make you experience the full range of emotions in the story along with the character. Why do you feel for the protagonist or another character? What is the writer doing to make you feel that way? How does the writer construct the character’s arc, step by step? How does the writer evoke a sense of atmosphere and movement with limited words? How does the writer ramp up tension to keep you fascinated as you read? What’s the obligatory scene in the movie or the emotional promise of the show that keeps you turning the page?

In the library, I sometimes notice that patrons who are writing spec scripts for certain series feel the urgent need to read the most recent season or look at scripts for very specific episodes. They feel they must emulate the format, style and wording to a T for their spec to be deemed successful. My advice is: Don’t fret so much about crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Remember to focus on how the writing of the show makes you feel (giving attention to structure and tone). You can get all the information you need from actually sitting down and watching the show and taking notes. Having access to the scripts then becomes a great bonus to get your spec looking and sounding as true to the original as possible. Your objective, above all else, should be to tell the kind of story that they tell on that series—and to tell it so well, readers feel the same way they feel when they watch the show. Your feelings (and how the writer elicits them) are the most important things to extrapolate.


Bring a notebook and pen to the library or to your couch when you sit down to watch something. When you write by hand, you slow down and retain more information. Taking notes by hand also ensures that you’re in your own thoughts rather than copying someone else’s. You’re paying attention to your gut and jotting down what grabs your attention and why.

It might sound obvious, but it needs to be said: Copying is detrimental to the craft of writing. The age-old adage is true: Immature artists copy while mature artists steal. Most of us aren’t even cognizant of doing it. When an amazing writer hands us a perfect line of action or character description, we’re sometimes apt to use the exact same words in our own scripts. Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about how a lack of original word choice can perpetuate cliches, stereotypes and harmful behaviors in the wider entertainment industry. Using someone else’s exact words dumbs writing down to the point that lots of scripts can start to feel very similar to each other. Your own words are valuable in that they are unique. Use them.

Type when you’re writing your own script. Write by hand when you’re taking notes on somebody else’s. In fact, write by hand as often as you can. It just encourages more thoughtfulness.


Recently, there’s been a surge in online articles that focus on descriptions in screen and teleplays. If you’re going to quote someone else’s (by the way, unpublished) work for the fair purpose of critique, the absolute least you can do is credit the writer. This is like copying the text of a tweet rather than just re-tweeting it. Failing to acknowledge the author, completely disrespects the original thought as well as the very hard work of the person who wrote it.

Even if you don’t mean to, it seems like you’re trying to pass the thought off as your own. While this sort of behavior is rampant in our all-access, online culture, you’d hate it if somebody did this to you. It lessens the very value of thoughts and ideas. Historian Danielle McGuire puts it in better terms than I ever could in this great article for the Columbia Journalism Review.


Read a ton. Don’t ever stop reading. The more you read, the more stories, styles and information will have an impact on you. Read scripts outside your wheelhouse and aspirations. Your genre of choice might be romantic comedy, but you can still become better at writing description by reading the Alien screenplay. Your style might be more atmosphere or action-oriented. That doesn’t mean you can’t strengthen your understanding of dialogue by reading screwball comedies or The West Wing. If you regularly read all sorts of scripts, you’ll have more tactics to draw on when you sit down to write and, as a result, you’ll have a richer voice.


Remember that writers learn from reading and if you’re in the enviable position of having written a film or TV show that has an effect on people, share what you know. A very simple way to give mentorship to aspiring writers is, of course, to provide access to your scripts by donating them to a script library. (Wink wink.)

And if you’re eager to see the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s thoughts on writing, come visit the WGF script library sometime soon.



Super Bowl Script Cavalcade: The Wonder Years

On the surface, the Super Bowl might seem to be about football and over-the-top commercials, but anyone who’s anyone knows that it’s really about the episode of television that airs immediately following the game. TV networks have historically used the massive viewership that accompanies the most-watched event of the year in order to cultivate a greater audience for one of their new or currently running shows. This is the cultural phenomenon known as the “Super Bowl Lead-Out Program.”  

This time slot has seen everything from Lassie after the very first Super Bowl in 1967 to Julia Roberts guest-starring on Friends to a man with an active bomb stuck in his body on Grey’s Anatomy to what’s sure to be a heart-palpitation-inducing episode of This Is Us immediately after the New England Patriots take on the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday.  

Studying scripts from past post-Super Bowl lead-out episodes can be a particularly illuminating experience for writers. Such scripts are littered with tactics for hooking viewers—viewers whose senses have probably been dulled by too many flashy commercials or perhaps by too much beer.

For the past 25 years or so, the trend among networks has been to air a special, high-budget episode of an already wildly successful show, but this hasn’t always been the case. From the mid 1980s to the mid 90s, networks hoped to jump-start the audience for new shows by airing pilots after the super bowl. This tactic didn’t work especially well as many of these series were cancelled sometimes within weeks of their initial debut.  

On many counts, one of the most successful pilots to air after the Super Bowl was the pilot for The Wonder Years, which premiered on ABC immediately after Super Bowl XXII in 1988, exactly thirty years ago this year.  

Written by Neal Marlens & Carol Black (The team behind Growing Pains and Ellen), the pilot for The Wonder Years has little in common with the huge guest stars or heart-rending plot machinations of post-Super Bowl TV episodes in more recent years. Rather, it’s subtle and uses nostalgia to look at the everyday upbringing of its 12-year-old protagonist. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of program that people would double over in desperation to tune into, yet in its debut and in subsequent seasons, The Wonder Years managed to accrue a passionate and dedicated viewer base.

The question is: how does a small, sentimental show without obvious high stakes or attention-grabbing trappings come to garner such a loyal following and become known as a television classic?

The pilot script opens, as nearly every episode of the show does, with an adult man named Kevin Arnold looking back on his adolescence in the 1960s.

Notice how one of the first scenes is a group of kids playing football in the street.

In 1988, this is the perfect sentiment to evoke amongst people watching the biggest football game of the year because they might be watching it with family and/or friends and reminiscingPart of how The Wonder Years draws people in is by crafting a deeply personal narrative around themes and experiences that everybody has dealt with to a certain extent.

It tells stories about family and misunderstandings between parents and their kids:

It deals with friendship in a really warm and empathetic way:

It deals with first love:

The show even deals also death. In fact, none of the aforementioned topics go un-broached even in the pilot script.  

By 1988, the boomer generation was mostly grown up and probably living in suburbia with children of their own. Most of them probably tuned into the Super Bowl that year. The Wonder Years attempts to speak directly to them by telling stories about events they would have very acute, personal memories of, such as the war in Vietnam or MLK Jr. and JFK’s assassinations. By writing specifically about these things, the writers fashion a show that people can feel belongs to them. They take this feeling of personalization one step further by wrapping their stories in the music of the time period. Nothing can “take a person back” like hearing songs from a certain era, so the feeling of nostalgia is multiplied many times over by including popular songs from the ’60s. 

Literary wisdom tells us that “the personal is universal.” By delving down into the specifics of what it was like to grow-up during the 1960s, the writers here create a story that feels poignant for anybody who’s ever grown-up. That’s their hook. That’s why their show matters to so many people.

Maybe the pilot for The Wonder Years is an exception and not the rule when it comes to Post-Super Bowl Lead-Out programming, but it deserves to be a case study in how it allows anybody regardless of the circumstances or time period of their upbringing to be able to look back on their youth from a distance and imbue certain people and events with deeper meaning and understanding. Isn’t that what storytelling is all about?

If you want to study-up on Post-Super Bowl Lead-Out episodes, get your fix in the WGF Library’s collections. We have the following: 

  • The A*Team’s “Children of Jamestown” – Written by Stephen J. Cannnell, which aired in 1983 after Super Bowl XVII 
  • The pilot episode “Gone for Goode” from Homicide: Life on the Street – Written by Paul Attanasio, which aired in 1993 after Super Bowl XXVII 
  • Friends’ “The One After the Superbowl,” (Pt. 1 Written by Jeffrey Astrof & Mike Sikowitz; Pt. 2 – Written by Michael Borkow), which aired in 1996 after Super Bowl XXX 
  • The X Files’ “Leonard Betts” – Written by Vince Gilligan & John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz, which aired in 1997 after Super Bowl XXXI 
  • The pilot for Family Guy – Written by Seth MacFarlane, which aired in 1999 after Super Bowl XXXIII 
  • Malcolm in the Middle’s “Company Picnic” – Teleplay by Al Higgins, which aired in 2002 after Super Bowl XXXVI 
  • Grey’s Anatomy’s “It’s the End of the World,” which aired in 2006 after Super Bowl XL (and it’s equally incredible follow-up episode “As We Know It” which aired a few days later, both written by Shonda Rhimes)
  • House’s “Frozen” – Written by Liz Friedman, which aired in 2008 after Super Bowl XLII. 
  • Elementary’s “The Deductionist” – Written by Craig Sweeny & Robert Doherty, which aired in 2013 after Super Bowl XLVII

As always, continue to search our library catalog for all your script reading needs.

In Place of Beautiful – Thoughts on Introducing Female Characters

Writers, we have a problem.

The problem is “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive,” “cute”… and a few other adjectives of similar meaning.

The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to find a screenplay or pilot script that doesn’t introduce its female characters using one of these words.

I work in a script library. Once a patron pointed this out to me, it’s a phenomenon I can’t seem to un-see. From the greenest of beginners to the most seasoned Emmy and Oscar winners; from the very beginning of cinema to TV episodes that aired last week, it’s like we can’t write a character who identifies as female without including the qualifier that she’s good-looking. Then, some of us think we’ll get bonus points if we specify that she doesn’t realize she’s good-looking.

This cliché has been the norm for so long that many of us are apt to not even notice. (By the way, this includes many women writers and it includes me.)

Screenwriting is predicated on economy of language. Because words in scripts are used more sparingly, the ones that make it to the page really count.

Think of all the critical creative decisions on a film or TV show, i.e. who the casting department seeks out for the role, how the actor interprets the role, how the character is received, how we’re influenced by the story, etc. that all take root in the lean selection of words put forth by the writer.

As age-old Hollywood wisdom tells us, it starts on the page.

And yet, despite knowing the importance of our word selection, when it comes to our female characters, we continue to use the same careless, generic, appearance-related adjectives—words used so frequently and without purpose that they start to lose all meaning.

Aren’t we aware enough to realize that using these flimsy words in a perpetual cycle is the very genesis of how we start to limit women’s participation not only in the stories we tell, but more so in the industry that supports the telling of those stories?

Beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…

When we resort to including these words in something as pivotal as a character’s introduction, we reinforce the idea that a character’s other qualities are only worth noticing so long as she’s physically attractive. We give the impression that we couldn’t be bothered to dig up a more specific word so therefore the role must be inconsequential.

When used, “beautiful, pretty, attractive, cute…” tell us that it’s in the woman’s very nature to be an object of desire—even if she’s a hugely active character, even if she’s the hero and even if it’s a story primarily about women.

By contrast, male characters’ physical appearances seem to be described less in such stock terminology. Leaving out generic descriptions of how they look enables us to see them as more unique and perhaps more autonomous.

Could it be that some of the threatening, diminishing conduct towards women in this industry (such as that which has been brought into greater light recently) actually begins in the language we include in our scripts?

If this is true—if harmful, negative behavior can begin in our words—then the change that so many of us seek can also begin in our words. Simply put, altering the narrative can literally start on the page.

As writers of all gender identities, races, religions, creeds and stripes, we get to strike the match that ignites the fire, and it can be through actions as small as re-thinking how we describe our characters.

Oh, dear writers, script readers and anyone who makes movies or TV who just happens to be reading this, I’m giving you a New Year’s Resolution. Any time you come across a description in a script that reads like this…

Or this….

… whether it exists in a friend’s, client’s or, most importantly, your own work… try to see empty words like “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive” and “cute” as the blank spaces they are, then make a mental Mad Lib for yourself. Create a space that’s waiting for you as the writer, collaborator or giver of feedback to fill it with something alive, unique and purposeful. I suspect many actors have used this technique for a long time.

Stumped about what words to put in that blank space? Here are a few ideas to jump-start your imagination.

  • First and least creatively, google some thesaurus terms. Words like “alluring,” “magnetic,” even “lovely” sound marginally more thoughtful and specific than the standard “pretty” or “attractive” even if they do allude entirely to how the character looks.

  • It’s easier to write with specificity when you’re thinking of a real person as you go along. Whether you’re picturing the actor who will play this character or a person the character is inspired by, you’re more likely to focus on things like mannerisms and behaviors rather than resorting to generalizations or stereotypes. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in the library. He imbues every character with a kind of warmth and individuality.

  • Just leave it blank. If it’s a good script, you won’t have to go into detail describing what the character looks like because what we need to know about them will come through in what they do. The pilot scripts for Insecure, Girls and Jane the Virgin describe their leading ladies minimally without ever referencing their physical appearance.

  • Tell us the character’s occupation instead. This takes focus away from what the character looks like and puts it on what the character does.

  • In instances of the dreaded, “beautiful but doesn’t know it” or “broken, but beautiful” type of introduction, think of the kind of person this character becomes by the very end of the script. What has she discovered about herself that she didn’t know before? What kind of person has she become? How has she changed? If you have trouble with this, think of some of the great female character arcs in movies and TV from Thelma of Thelma & Louise to Betty of Ugly Betty to Katherine of Hidden Figures to Daenarys of Game of Thrones. In what way do they become different over the course of the story? Those are the words to use in place of beautiful.

If you’re still worried that you’re falling into the use of an annoying cliché or that you might be perpetuating the omnipresent stereotypical or overused narrative with your descriptions, ask somebody to give you feedback on them.

… and if you don’t have anybody to give you this kind of feedback, feel free to bring your character descriptions to the WGF Library. This script librarian would be happy to give you slightly objective perspective on your character intros.

I’ll keep calling attention to this issue until empty words like beautiful, pretty, attractive and cute are replaced with a slew of dynamic adjectives and nouns and we feel empowered to become each and every one of them.

I’ll soon be back to my regular posts on cool scripts to read in the library. Now and always, keep writing!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Last Detail

While thinking about Veteran’s Day and stories about military life, I want to use this week’s Script Cavalcade to talk about one of my favorite, distinctly character-driven screenplays. Adapted by Robert Towne from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail tells the story of two Navy lifers assigned to transport a cherubic younger shipman from a base in Norfolk, Virginia to a prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The younger sailor, Larry Meadows, has been sentenced to eight years in the brig for the crime of attempting to steal forty dollars from a commanding officer’s wife’s charity box. The two petty officers, Buddusky and Mulhall, have a simple initial plan—get the kid to the pen in two days, then spend the rest of the week having fun with their per diem.

Their plans change slightly when something unexpected happens. Buddusky and Mulhall start to feel for and take a liking to their prisoner, making a point to use their limited time to help him experience everything he’ll miss out on while locked up. This road movie offers insight into America’s state of mind during the 1960s and ’70s. As the story progresses, Mulhall and Buddusky grow a conscience, slowly recognizing the absurdity of an eight-year prison sentence for such a meager crime. Still, they scrappily carry out their orders. In its own quiet and personal way, the script seems to reflect the country’s feelings of helplessness around events like Watergate and Vietnam—all of it giving way to the notion that maybe we’re all longing to escape and find freedom from the day-to-day prisons of our own making. These are big ideas and questions for a movie about three sailors shooting the breeze and going on small detours as they hop buses and trains through the Mid-Atlantic.

Robert Towne, perhaps best known for writing Chinatown, here delivers another tour-de-force script, but in this adaptation the dramatic punches are delivered through the subtle uncovering of the characters’ pain and humanity.

In this blogger’s opinion, the script for The Last Detail is just as essential a work to study as Chinatown. The screenplay offers pointed instruction on how to reveal character on the page in a way that elicits curiosity and empathy; it offers insight into how to craft sharp and meaningful character interactions and, perhaps most importantly, how to build a compelling character arc in an everyday, real-world kind of story.

The plot isn’t hinged on slaying a dragon or stopping a madman from causing destruction. There’s no major secret to uncover—no nefarious business man who impregnated his daughter—just a kid to drop off who’s awaiting punishment for a petty crime.

As the prison-type destination looms closer, questions arise. Will Buddusky and Mulhall get Meadows to Portsmouth on time, or will they somehow screw it up? Or will they choose to abandon their detail and let him go free? These questions give rise to drama and keep us engaged in the story. Every element of the script is made just a bit more poignant with the knowledge that these are Meadows’ last few days as a free man for a long time. It makes the other two sailors internally question the last time they were truly free.

As the sailors continue along down the road, sucking the nectar from the week, they get to know each other. This is the beauty of putting three disparate characters on a journey together. The script sets Buddusky and Mulhall up as chasers and mean bastards, getting us to make assumptions about them by giving them nicknames—Badass and Mule— assumptions that will be satisfyingly shattered by the script’s conclusion.

The script also makes it a point to set Meadows up as a criminal, but then shows us that he’s merely a naïve kid, who probably doesn’t deserve such a harsh sentence for a minor offense. These are good lessons in how to use names, hearsay from other characters and even uniforms to build up a persona and gradually chip away at it until we see the truth that’s underneath. And honestly, what’s more compelling than that when reading a script or watching a film?

Towne ensures that his scenes pop by giving his sailors contrasting personalities and different ways of handling situations. In navigating to Portsmouth, Buddusky is a troublemaker and button-pusher, giving Mulhall the task of constantly having to play defense and rein him in. Similarly, Buddusky is always trying to provoke and entertain the shy and contained Meadows. Automatically, the scenes are bubbling with playable conflict that deftly and discreetly moves the story forward while also giving the actors much to sink their teeth into. It’s very interesting to chart Meadows character arc from frightened kid to attempting to be more belligerent and manly like Buddusky.

Notice that no expletive goes unspoken. Towne makes sure these sailors talk like sailors, citing in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind that people resort to cursing when they feel powerless.

Most screenwriting wisdom compels us to create heroes and heroines who stand up for what they believe in no matter how gut-wrenching the personal cost to them. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons from The Last Detail is that it can be just as wrenching a dramatic choice to have a character know or feel they ought to stand up or do something, but then not do it, perhaps choosing their professional, personal or societal obligations over what their heart or conscience tells them is right. If we’re being honest, that’s the choice most of us would probably make anyway.

What we’re left with, then, like Buddusky and Mulhall, is an aching sense of regret, a sensation familiar to anybody who’s ever lived a life.

Why write or make a movie if not to elicit such a universal feeling?

If you want to learn more about Robert Towne, watch our Writer Speaks Oral History interview with him here. It’s also currently playing on the monitors outside the library.

Find out more about the Writer’s Guild Foundations Veterans Writing Project and how you can support it right here.

If it’s military stories you’re interested in, check out the WGF Library catalog. We have everything from Platoon to Hacksaw Ridge to scripts from CBS’s recent hit Seal Team.

Halloween Script Cavalcade: The Munsters

The following anecdote is from a development / pitch document for The Munsters (1964):

In honor of Halloween, I’m here to make a different kind of pitch for The Munsters. The WGF Archive recently processed a bounty of scripts and materials relating to the zany, ghoulish family. Most of this collection hails from Norm Liebmann who is credited with developing the show alongside his writing partner Ed Haas and creators Allan Burns & Chris Hayward. The Munsters collection is expansive and features many useful highlights like the aforementioned pitch document—items that will appeal to writers of all stripes as well as TV history fans and scholars.

Newspaper clippings from the collection tell us that The Munsters premiered on CBS the very same week in September as another show about a strange, macabre family living in a large and ominous house at the end of a suburban, neighborhood street. That other show was, of course, The Addams Family, which premiered on ABC. As it happens, Bewitched also made its series premiere that same fateful week. It might seem strange or coincidental for three shows of similar ilk and like themes to hit television airwaves within mere days of each other.

David Levy, creator of the TV Addams Family, didn’t seem to think so. In a Los Angeles Times article dated August 11th, 1964, Levy, a former head of programming at NBC, states that:

Ideas float like confetti over Madison Ave. and it is not surprising that when the time is right for a particular type of show that two networks might decide to go with it.

The 1960s in America became a time of counterculture and unprecedented pushes for civil rights. We can see this reflected in shows about unconventional families trying to assimilate with “normal” people in the suburbs. Indeed, the Munsters, the Addams, or Samantha Stephens become stand-ins for any group of people who might feel marginalized or on the outs in American society or family life, calling ideas of normalcy and conformity into question and possibly making an argument for wider acceptance.

In addition to commentary, the idea of monsters or a slightly off-beat, deathy family trying to interact with or fit in with regular folks produces a lot of comedy.

Shows like The Munsters gain legs on the strength of their concepts. What makes the WGF Archives’ Munsters collection so informative is that those who mine it for information and inspiration can see how a show evolves from mere idea to full-fledged television program—how it moves from a successful pitch to a TV microcosm that fans are able to relate to and take part in.

Munsters Concept Illustration, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Liebmann & Haas put the concept across in such a cogent way on paper that one visualizes the series and how it will work on screen from week to week. Furthermore, most of the episodes from the show’s two-season run, are available as outlines, step outlines, rough drafts and final drafts so one can trace the full process of an episode’s writing. This kind of information can be helpful even to writers working in today’s current streaming atmosphere.

It’s particularly fascinating to examine the evolution of certain jokes within an episode. Having written for such late night and variety show luminaries as Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, Liebmann & Haas are quintessential joke masters with endless ideas brought forth onto the page and even more refinements. (See my earlier blog post about Liebmann’s contributions to The Roast of Bette Davis here).

No part of the writing and show-creating process is spared from this collection. In addition to scripts, there’s correspondence and notes from the show’s other writer/producers Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher who, prior to joining The Munsters, produced Amos ‘n Andy and Leave It to Beaver. Because Universal Studios produced The Munsters, the show had almost unfettered access to Universal’s most well-known scary creatures. This is the reason the show was able to include characters like Herman molded on Frankenstein or Grandpa molded on Dracula. In fact, the recognizability of such characters is a likely part of the show’s appeal.

Munsters Promotional Material, Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Archive

Norm Liebmann took great care to save most of his writing-related documents. The Munsters materials shine a light on everything from how the writers negotiated their contracts to how early Fred Gwynne had to be in his make-up chair every day on set. There’s even fun paraphernalia from the show’s fan clubs like this membership card from the The Jeepers Keepers Fan Club.

Norman Liebmann Collection, Writers Guild Foundation Library

It’s an ideal collection for anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of a classic sitcom’s evolution from script to screen. For more information on this collection and others available in the WGF Archive, please visit our website.

And if you’re looking for other spooky fair to get you in the mood for Halloween, try checking out some scripts from the library’s collection of features. We recommend:

  • John Carpenter‘s script for Halloween
  • Hocus Pocus written by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert
  • Charles Schultz‘s dialogue script for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Road to Perdition

Today we dust off that Depression-era fedora and flatten the pedal on a rickety Model T to delve full-throttle into 2002’s crime-drama Road to Perdition written by David Self, adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. The flick follows a mob enforcer father and his sensitive-skewed son as they maraud across the Midwest robbing banks and evading all sides of the law. It’s equal parts Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Little Miss Sunshine somehow.

Symbolism is implemented to optimal effect in this screenplay. And themes are explored thoughtfully and thoroughly and characters fully-realized and presented with all the complexity and nuance that such fine writing warrants. Our two filial protagonists, Michael Sullivan, Sr. and Jr., are richly layered and undergo transformative journeys that not only muddy the moral waters of what’s right and wrong but strikes at the heart of humanity, coarse and often unscrupulous, and how and if it’s possible to retain integrity when the ethical rafters start crumbling around you.

It’s a finely honed story, one that uses a wide arsenal of verdant visual descriptions to communicate character subtleties. For example, the story takes place during the height of a socio-economic depression. We’re mid-winter and morale is at an all-time low. Optimism has been obliquely obliterated. And the bleak surroundings reflect the pervading grayness of the moralistic decisions that these characters must endure and the coldness of society that prevails in the trying times of the rock-bottom 1930s.

Less is more. The screenplay is all brute force when it comes to clocking you maximally with minimalistic dialogue. It’s nonverbal in its veracity. The story is lifted by the lack of loquaciousness. The script doesn’t brook superfluous sentences and instead relies heavily upon the unspoken spaces and subtext between dialogue. Each silence is kneaded with an abundance of emotional dimensions. We can see the internal wheels and cogs spinning wildly within in those moments of profound muteness. It’s a screenplay that is unabashedly trim and lean in execution.

The depiction of violence in the film is treated with an added aura of significance. The notion of inherited violence is exactingly examined and stands as the thematic fulcrum of the father and son relationship. Sullivan, Sr. seeks to shield his son from this seedy world of speakeasies and easy-murder. Sullivan shows signs of unresolved resentment as he sees much of himself in his son. His boy’s virtue and sense of justice is in jeopardy and Sullivan will stop at nothing to preserve it. Can a man seek a semblance of redemption through the salvaging of his son? The son himself questions whether or not he’s capable of such irredeemable acts but is conflicted as it took a horrendous family tragedy to finally bring them closer together. It’s an exemplary array of moralistic questions in which to build a strong screenplay around.

Suffice it to say the theme of fathers and sons plays a prominent role in the screenplay. It’s turgid with Turgenev-ness. Beyond the overt paternal back-and-forth between Sullivan and his son, there’s also the relationship between mob boss John Rooney and Sullivan himself. John is a surrogate father figure to Sullivan, and it makes his quest for vengeance all the more torturous. Their final climactic showdown is tinged with a bittersweetness as they share one last kindred exchange before what has to happen heartbreakingly happens.

It’s a well-weaved story that withstands the weathering of time. It’s a script that provokes thought and is economical in its ethos toward character studies. Silence begets more silence and acts of violence have import and go beyond mere gratuitous carnage. Set in a modernizing and weary world wherein lawlessness is slowing being eradicated and men must be held accountable for their sins. The story is mythic and epic in proportions and poses the same enduring questions that go unanswered today.

So beat a quick retreat to the library and get reading. It’s special.

And when you’re done excavating the cavernous depths of mankind’s capacity for corruptibility, lend your eyes to these other craftily-composed and newly-nabbed scripts:

  • The pilot episode of Fox’s The Orville penned by animation-maven Seth MacFarlane.
  • Emmy-nominated episode of The Americans “The Soviet Division” written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.
  • HBO’s Westworld episode “The Bicameral Mind” written by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Yet another Emmy nominated script.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.
  • And please ponder our everlastingly expanding catalog.

Duck soup.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: La Bamba

This week on Script Cavalcade, we’re plumbing the mythological subsurface of Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1988). The rollicking musical biopic celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a handful of different screenings around LA and beyond. Writerly fans of La Bamba will be pleased to know that the WGF Library has two drafts of the screenplay in its collection – and one of them is signed with encouragement by the maestro himself.

The film tells the story of early, pioneering rocker Ritchie Valens of Pacoima, California, who died at 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, but not before changing the face of American popular music by adapting a traditional Mexican folk song “La Bamba” into one of the most enduring rock hits of all time. A one-time migrant farmworker, Valens (whose birth name was Richard Valenzuelas) is a fantastic example of Mexican-descended influence on roots music and early rock ‘n roll. By telling Valens’ story, Valdez reveals an under-explored aspect of music culture, creating a folk icon for everyone, but especially for those who don’t get nearly as many opportunities to see themselves presented as nuanced heroes of their own big-screen narratives.

Luis Valdez, known widely as the “Father of Chicano Theater,” isn’t so much a screenwriter or playwright as he is a mythmaker. When we think of mythology, we often think of deeply traditional narratives and sacred stories that seek to explain the origin of the world, death and human nature. Such stories are often about Gods, heroes, animals or personifications of natural elements like mountains and sky. Valdez’s gift as a writer is his ability to make commentary on everyday life and the present-day social order by spinning it into myth. By reaching for the mythic underpinnings in his stories, Valdez elevates his narratives to the highest level of storytelling. That’s why his writing feels universal and endures.

This week, I present you with one simple scene. In La Bamba, like any great hero, Ritchie must look inward and connect with his roots to discover his power and his identity. In this case, Ritchie finds himself waking up hungover in Tijuana with a bizarre, old medicine man. The drama is laden with symbolism and has a kind of ancient subtext eking out of its pores. These are ideal study pages for writers looking to unearth the macro/mythic/universal-level themes in their personal stories. It’s motivation for all of us to study and connect with our own ancestry and culture – wherever it might originate — in order to draw from it in our work.

As a writer, seeing things on a mythological or cosmogonic level involves stripping away modern formality. In contemporary society, we often define ourselves by our professions, i.e. – “I’m an attorney;” “I’m a football player;” “I’m a sales technician,” etc. Writing at the mythic level involves looking beyond certain contemporary social constructions like one’s job title. Many ancient peoples believed that individuals had specific destinies—to become warriors, healers, wanderers, teachers or storytellers and that it was an individual’s job to realize one’s destiny and to journey to become it. If we look at life as though it is a myth and we view our own experience as though we’re heroes and heroines on a journey to discover who we are, we find certain universal rites of passage and we encounter people who initiate, instruct and heal us in different ways. If there don’t appear to be healers and shamans in modern society, it’s only because we’re not looking hard enough. The best writers—like Valdez—are not only able to see them, they’re able to reveal them in their writing.

Knowing that his lead character dies in a plane crash, Valdez is able to shape his script with the benefit of hindsight. He shows us Ritchie’s continual nightmares about his own death. By including a scene where Ritchie encounters a Curandero, or healer, who seems able to see into his soul and his fate, the writer makes a comment on existence in general, that it’s bigger than we could possibly understand and that death is an innate part of it, but also that death is a portal into something much, much larger and more infinite. This is more than just a musical biopic; it’s writing that makes us feel less alone and afraid because it taps into timeless aspects of personhood that affect every single human.

These are just a few things for you to contemplate the next time you sit down at your laptop.

If you’re looking for more scriptly wisdom to be inspired by, check out some of the library’s newest acquisitions.

  • Black Mirror’s Emmy-Winning “San Junipero” written by Charlie Brooker.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
  • The Glass Castle written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls.
  • Scripts from 2008’s TNT series Leverage, seasons 1 and 2.
  • The entire 1st season of NBC’s Marlon.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Punch-Drunk Love

This week’s Cavalcade has us delving deep into the lovelorn lullaby that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic-dramedy Punch-Drunk Love. It’s a screenplay that boasts one of the most bizarre but exceedingly endearing schlubs since Marty. It’s a tale that uses a full range of emotional and cinematic language to convey a heartbreaking yarn of yearning and arrival at acceptance. Romantic, existential, and otherwise.

The quick run-through: Loveable and lovesick Barry Egan is eking his way through existence. Continually battered and emasculated by his domineering seven sisters and working a dead-end job, he’s quickly reaching the end of his rope. Loneliness is the only enduring constant of the day. It’s just misery Monday through Friday.

But then a beacon of light wafts in. And he’s introduced to lilting and lovely Lena Leonard. And she, in turn, introduces a little wattage into his dimming and emotionally imperiled life. But between him and his last remaining chance at happiness lays a gauntlet of blackmailing phone-sex operators, a goon squad of boorish brothers, and Barry’s own inclination to self-sabotage a good thing. Love teeters precariously in the balance. And we’re along for the ride and root for the galoot throughout.

The screenplay lays on the symbolism pretty thick. From page one we’re befuddled by a wayward and mysterious harmonium that inexplicably ends up in Barry’s possession. This little organ, drubbed and discarded, becomes a visual surrogate for his own heart. This innocuous little instrument symbolizes a chance at romantic opportunity. Like love, it arrives unexpectedly (the harmonium is abandoned on a lonely road after a horrific car crash on page one). When Barry pilfers the harmonium from the curb he finds it a little worse for wear. But he nurtures it. He takes the time to coax it into something aurally beautiful. He mends the billows with duct tape, and the act becomes a redemptive gesture of nursing his own internal wounds.

As the story progresses, beleaguered Barry will steal away to these little solitary interludes. He’ll brush a key and release a mournful chord that reflects his current inner turmoil. Scene after scene passes, and he soon starts to find a rhythm. And the larger the role Lena plays in his life, the more dulcet his tunes start to become. It’s all a very rich metaphor for the effort and strain falling in love takes on the heart. The script seems to suggest, akin to playing Carnegie Hall, that intimacy requires practice, practice, practice. And by movie’s end, they’ve learned to make swelling, symphonic music together.

The telephone also plays a prominent symbolic role. The telephone becomes an apparatus of anxiety and tension for Barry. Trouble seems to ineluctably ensue whenever he reaches for one. It’s the source of unending woe that keeps coming in waves. From the phone scam that empties his pockets to the perpetual haranguing he receives from his sisters. A ringing phone is the harbinger of heartache for Barry. And quickly represents all that is alienating and lobs him further into loneliness. But as his relationship with Lena grows stronger, he wades deep within himself and discovers newfound funds of courage heretofore unavailable to him. He sheds the telephone permanently from his life. And severs any lingering insecurities it symbolizes.

It’s a riveting read. And proffers many a canny lesson in injecting subtle symbolism into a story. The screenplay packs a compact wallop at only ninety pages. But each page is just drenched in deliberate characterization and pronounced visual pathos.

So stock up on the pudding and be frequently-flown away to a world of revealing and romantic reverie. I’ll say with no exaggeration: This script is very food.

And when you’re finished with Punch-Drunk Love, feel free to peruse and pluck out some of these latest acquisitions in the library.

  • CBS television drama Picket Fences created by David E. Kelley.
  • Crime-drama Wiseguy created by Stephen J. Cannell.
  • CBS sitcom Newhart created by Barry Kemp.
  • Gimlet Media’s popular podcast Homecoming penned by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg.
  • And spare a picosecond to have a poke-about and palaver over the new First Pages: 1931 to 2016 exhibit in the library lobby.

And I would say that’s that, mattress man.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Bed, Bath and Beyond

Will & Grace is I Love Lucy… if Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz just happened to be queer. It’s a genius variation on the traditional sitcom that, in its day, helped to broaden the types of people and friendships that could be depicted on the small screen. Despite its sometimes exaggerated characterizations and decidedly un-PC humor, Will & Grace helped to make gay culture more visible and accessible to contemporary America. And let’s face it, it did so by making us belly laugh.

Deep, gut-based cackling is ultimately the point of the situation comedy, or “sitcom,” which I will go ahead and define as:

a series in which a fixed set of characters find themselves in a new comedic situation during each individual episode.

Because the format requires a consistent set of characters to get into shenanigans week after week, it’s no surprise that many sitcoms are about families. Of all the sitcoms to revive for our current times, Will & Grace seems, in my mind, a great choice. This is because, in addition to all the laughter, it helps to remind us of the types of chosen and non-nuclear families and support systems that can be found out in the world.

The WGF Library has almost the entire original run of Will & Grace scripts. I’m writing this blog post because – revival aside – the show provides an ideal study for writers looking to understand the mechanics of sitcom writing, especially the kind with one foot in tradition and one foot in attempting to push the format further socially. They’re scripts that offer basic instruction to those who read them on how to mix belly laughs with sweetness and feeling.

Let’s dive in to a script from the fourth season of the show called “Bed, Bath and Beyond.” Written by Jhoni Marchinko, this episode aired November 8, 2001, a time when America found itself turning to sitcoms for comfort in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Like a good gift, the best television episodes often come in the most plain and simple of packaging. “Bed, Bath and Beyond” and other episodes of its ilk are fantastic for reading because they utilize no guest stars. The story is also confined to just the main location of the series (in this case, that’s Will and Grace’s apartment). If you’re a writer trying to churn out a spec script for a sitcom, these will often be the tools or basic elements at your disposal.

In its 38 pages, this script tells the story of how—after expecting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Nathan, but instead getting dumped—Grace is so full of misery and self-pity that she refuses to get out of bed. Beginning to worry, Will tries everything he can to get Grace up and moving and back out into the world.

That’s it. There’s one situation and one clean line of action to resolve it. The comedy in the episode comes particularly from Jack and Karen’s inability to help Will achieve this task in a helpful and sensitive way. Bedridden and sad, Grace plays “the straight woman” to their outrageous antics.

Watch how Jack tries to cheer Grace up by singing a medley of songs…

…but he only makes her feel worse.

Watch how Karen resorts to demanding help from Rosario…

When Rosario gets into the bedroom with Grace, she’s forced to play the straight woman as Grace inundates her with slides from her childhood, trying to determine where it all went wrong and delivering this tour de force monologue:

Running out of options, the gang eventually resorts to tossing Grace into the shower to “wash that man right out of her hair” but she counters by slipping out of their grip and telling them that she’s just not ready, that she must allow herself to be sad in her own way before she can feel better. In doing this, she tells each of them that she’s just not as strong as they are, inadvertently reminding each of them of the things in their lives that they could be heartbroken about.

She bums them out until they feel like going to bed and never getting up.

One of the final images—Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all lying in bed together—gives rise to the ultimate lesson of the episode. Crises and periods of woe are easier to bear when you have friends and family who understand what you’re going through and stand by you.

In polarizing and challenging times, this is the heart of the story that rears its head underneath the laughter. It’s a message that resonates.

While you’re at the library reading up on Will & Grace, be sure to check out some new additions to the collection, including:

  • A handful of scripts from The Bold Type created by Sarah Watson
  • Scripts from The Carol Burnett Show from the recently acquired Arnie Kogen collection
  • Scripts from 1996’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Bob Brush & Patrick Q. Page
  • The feature screenplay for Logan Lucky Written by Rebecca Blunt.

For more scripts, please search our ever-expanding library catalog and follow the Writers Guild Foundation on Twitter.