This week, we are going to be discussing Talk to Me, a sweet little independent horror movie written by Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman based on an idea by Daley Pearson.
There is so much that we’re going to learn from Talk to Me and not just about making horror movies.
We’re going to be using Talk to Me as a model to understand the vital role of the first image of your screenplay, the first page of your screenplay, and the first 10 pages of your screenplay on both a commercial and creative level.
We’re going to talk about what your first 10 pages need to accomplish to get you better coverage, more festival wins, and greater commercial success, and also how to build from those first 10 pages to find theme, expand character development, find exciting twists on genre tropes and clichés, and to create the dramatic story underneath your genre film.
If you have not yet seen Talk to Me, the first half of this podcast will just be about the first 10 minutes of the film, so I won’t spoil anything beyond the first 10 minutes. Then, as we get to Part 2, we’re going to start to get deeper into the structure of the film. At that point there will be some spoilers, so make sure to watch Talk to Me before Part 2 of this podcast comes out in 2 weeks.
These three ideas – first image, first page, first 10 pages – are the most important elements of your screenplay, not only on the commercial level but also on the creative level.
On a purely commercial level, here’s the reality: the first 10 pages of your screenplay are so important because producers don’t like to read. Agents don’t like to read. Nobody likes to read.
I’m not talking about their personalities or their predilections. There are some agents and producers who love reading a great novel or even a great screenplay. But every moment that a producer, a manager, an agent spends reading is a moment that they are not selling. And their job is to sell.
Just like a pro football player gets paid to score touchdowns, not to do bench presses, agents and producers get paid to sell, not to read. Reading is something that they have to do. But it’s not something that they want to do, because it’s not where they make their big money. It’s not where they feel their biggest sense of accomplishment. They feel accomplishment when they sell something.
So there’s a reasonable business reason why producers and agents are so resistant to reading. There’s also just a physical reason that they’re resistant to reading: they have more submissions every single week than they could read in an entire lifetime.
Which means that, most likely, your script’s not even getting read by a producer, agent or manager. Most likely your script is actually getting read by an assistant, by a junior level development executive.
Or even more likely than that, because those people also have more scripts than they can read and more calls than they can handle and more networking than any human being could possibly do, it’s probably actually getting read by a coverage reader.
Who are these coverage readers? And how do you draw them into your writing to get better script coverage?
A coverage reader is sometimes a brilliant writer who in the future will go on to be a great writer. A coverage reader is sometimes a terrible writer who will not end up going on to be a writer. A coverage reader is sometimes an intern.
But regardless, a coverage reader is most likely somebody who is reading scripts for $50 or less per script.
Just think about that for a moment. Think about how long it would take you just to read a script, write a good logline, and write a helpful summary and incisive commentary. And you’ll realize that if they were fully doing their jobs for every single script, they’d be making around 30 cents an hour.
That means that coverage readers cannot fully read every script, nor do they want to. Because most of the scripts coming at them – even scripts by professional writers with powerful agents and managers – most scripts coming at them are terrible.
If a coverage reader reads 100 scripts, 100 of them are terrible. If they read a thousand, maybe one or two are good.
Coverage readers are reading terrible material all the time, which means that there’s a resistance in them, even if they’re a lit major who loves reading.
There’s resistance in them because they’ve got to get through so many scripts just to pay the rent.
And most likely their dream is not to be a coverage reader.
Most likely their dream is to be a writer or a producer or a manager or an agent, which means they actually do want to find that diamond in the rough. Of course they do! They want to prove to whomever they’re working for, I’ve got talent! I can pick good material! It’s a route into the industry for them.
So for all these reasons, coverage readers, producers, managers, agents — none of them actually have time to read.
What most of them actually do is skim. They skim because most of the scripts they’re reading are not worth reading.
So your job as a writer is really, really simple. You’ve got to show them that this script doesn’t suck, from the moment they first start reading.
Regardless of the genre of your screenplay, if you want to get past coverage readers, you must grab their attention from the very first image of your screenplay, and start shifting them from a place of jadedness and negative anticipation to the place of curiosity and excitement.
And this is true not just for coverage readers, but also for audiences. Netflix has data showing that audiences make the decision to watch or click to something else in the first 10 seconds! Think about that! That’s the first 1/6th of a page of your script.
So when you learn to use these techniques, you’ll not only be more successful getting past coverage readers, but also have a movie that is more successful in drawing in its readers!
Here’s how Talk to Me uses its first few moments to draw us into the movie.
As the film starts, we are at a party, watching this kid, Cole, looking for his brother. He is weaving through the crowd, and we’re building anticipation as he comes to a closed, locked door… we know we’re in a horror movie, and we’re already getting scared, asking ourselves, “what’s on the other side of that door?”
Cole breaks through the door, and we get a glimpse of his brother’s back, covered with blood and scars. It looks like he’s been whipped or cut.
Cole covers up his brother, who is making some kind of catatonic mumbles about mom, who Cole is trying to remind him is long dead. Cole then leads his brother out into the crowd, where everyone is taking pictures on their phones. No one is feeling any empathy. They’re only watching the spectacle, like we’re watching the spectacle.
So Cole, the loving brother, tries to stop these people. Stop! Turn off your phone. What are you doing? He tries to do the right thing.
And when he turns around, his brother stabs him in the chest and then stabs himself right through the forehead!
This is the first image, the first scene, the first little sequence. This is the introduction to the world of Talk to Me. Let’s look at how much work that little scene is doing.
#1 – That first scene is telling us: Here’s the genre, here’s what you’re watching. Either you are into this or you are not, but you know exactly what it is.
#2 – That first scene starts with a character with a strong want and a strong obstacle in order to pull us into the movie.
#3 – That first scene has created the emotional landscape of Talk to Me.
#4 – That first scene is surprising us, even as it plays with common horror tropes like “the party scene.” It’s giving us a little twist on the thing we are afraid to see… Don’t do it! Don’t open the door!
This first little scene is basically saying, Look, this is a horror movie. This is a horrifying horror movie that’s going to leave you breathless. And it’s going to come at you a little bit differently than you expect, even though it’s going to play within the world of certain horror tropes. It’s going to shock you in ways you don’t see coming.
This is a promise it makes on the very first page.
So I want you to think about your first page, first on a purely commercial level.
Ask yourself, are you announcing to the audience on that first page: This is what this screenplay is? Or are you wasting your time on your first page setting things up, or establishing things, or making things clear.
Because if you’re doing the latter, I promise you, no one’s going to read Page 2. They’re going to skim Page 2 if they have to. But you’ve already lost them.
If your first image is boring, if your first image has been seen before, if your first image doesn’t nail the genre or the twist on the genre, if your first image is not grabbing you and us, then your first image isn’t working.
By the time the reader has gotten to the end of the first page, they should already be in love. And by the time they get to the end of the first 10 pages, they should already know if they want to make your movie.
So much needs to happen in those first 10 pages! You have to set the hook in those first 10 pages, because your coverage reader is making a decision: do they want this to work? Or do they just want to get through it?
Your job is to hypnotize your reader. You have 10 pages to take a reader who is jaded and scared that this is going to suck, and shift them, first to “Cool, this is going to be good.” Then to, “it’s going to be better than I thought.” Then to, “it’s going to be better than that!” Then to “Holy crap. Look at what’s happening.”
If you’ve taken my Write Your Screenplay class, you already know how to hypnotize your reader by Isolating Visual Moments of Action. But whatever your approach, this is what you want to build, a rising feeling of surprise, delight, an excitement in your audience, and the feeling that they are no longer reading, but experiencing your script.
Just as the first image of your script is the most important image of your script, the first image of your main character – in fact, the first image of every character in your script– is the most important image of that character.
From that very first image, the actor you want to play the role is deciding, “Do I want to play this role? Do I want to finish this script? Or is this a boring character? Is this not for me?”
From that very first image of the character, your reader is deciding, “Am I connected to her? Do I care about her?”
It’s not that your first image has to be mind-boggling. It just has to be specific enough that we realize, “Oh, I want to know who she is.”
The main character of Talk to Me is Mia. And she’s introduced with a strong first image that not only shows you who she is as a character, but also provides the visual foundation for her journey over the course of the movie.
In the first image of Mia, we see her picking at her nail polish. It’s a little vignette that gives us a sense of who and how Mia is.
We’re going to talk more about all the elements that the writers build from that image later, but just starting with a strong first image does so much for you as a writer.
Sometimes you don’t even know what the first image really means when you first see it. You’re learning your character, you’re learning your movie as you write.
In fact, Daniel Philippou has spoken extensively about not using an outline when he’s diving into a script. He just writes scenes that he thinks are cool and then he starts to riff on them.
The Philippous are such a great example for emerging writers and directors of what happens when you follow your instincts.
They actually started as YouTube makers, @rackaracka. They were making YouTube videos, making content. And now that has led to them making this little tiny $4.5 million movie that has already grossed over $63 million worldwide.
This is their first directing effort. This is their first feature-length screenplay that’s been produced.
The industry is not easy to break into. But there are ways in. You just have to do the thing that you already love doing, and keep doing it until the opportunity and the passion match up. If you love doing something, go do it and do it and do it and do it.
And sometimes writing something you love doesn’t begin with having it all figured out. Sometimes that just begins with an image of a girl scratching at her fingernail. I see this. What am I going to do with it?
As we continue further into the first 10 pages of Talk to Me, we’re going to see how everything grows and develops out of these first images.
We’ve started with the image of Mia scratching at her fingernails, and from there we’re going to find ourselves at a cemetery. We’re going to realize that Mia has lost her mom. We’re going to realize that whoever’s talking to her–it’s an image we barely see from off screen, almost like a ghost– there’s something wrong between them. She doesn’t want to be talking to this person.
So, we’re in this little emotional drama which is given genre weight by the opening. We know we’re in a horror movie, even though the scene that’s unfolding is a character driven drama. We’re seeing a girl who’s not OK.
We then cut to a first image of another featured character, Riley, a young kid, talking about cigarettes with his friend, who’s pushing the edges a little bit.
The truth is they’re both good kids, but Riley’s friend is dabbling. He’s selling cigarettes. And Riley doesn’t even want to smoke one.
This is where he’s starting, right in that innocent, beautiful, childlike place. Riley wants his sister to pick him up. But instead, it’s Mia who picks them up.
And we realize that Mia and Riley have this awesome connection. There’s this beautiful scene where they are just rockin’ it out as they drive.
But it’s been a minute or two so we need another horror element – and that’s the moment when the car comes to a stop.
You can see this is just a “yes, and…” to that moment from the opening scene with that party and the door that we know Cole shouldn’t open.
We’re sitting in the car. We know Mia stopped because she saw something. We don’t know what it is. Just like we didn’t know what was behind that door in the opening scene.
And we are once again thinking, Don’t do it! Don’t get out! Don’t get out! Don’t get out!
But of course Mia gets out, because we’re in a horror movie.
Not only that, but we’re in an Australian horror movie. Because there, on the road, is a dying kangaroo. It’s roadkill. It is dying. It is screaming in pain and agony.
And Riley says to Mia, “Put it out of its misery.”
Mia tries to back the car over the kangaroo, but she cannot do it. Instead, she leaves it suffering. She tells Riley another car will come. And we linger on this kangaroo, and we know we’re in a horror movie.
As an audience, we’re telling ourselves all kinds of stories in these first few pages of Talk to Me. About Mia. About Riley. About how their journey relates to the opening sequence.
Most likely, as we linger on the dying animal, we’re thinking this kangaroo has gotta be possessed, right? We’re waiting for the trope, the jump scare, but it doesn’t happen. The writers are going to give it to us, but they’re going to do it in a slightly different way than we’re expecting.
We’ll talk later about how this image of the kangaroo turns out to be predictive of everywhere the movie is going to go. But we don’t need to know that yet. In an early draft, the writers might not even know yet that this is the image from which the climax is going to grow. It’s just a horror movie image that they’re playing with.
We’re going to follow Mia and Riley home and realize that Mia has become part of a white family.
We don’t know exactly why but we’re starting to think that some things must be wrong at Mia’s home. Somehow her best friend Jade’s family has taken her in. And we are piecing together that Mia’s little buddy, Riley, is Jade’s little brother. Even Riley and Jade’s mother have a strong, loving relationship with Mia.
Nothing in the first 10 pages of Talk to Me is being spoon fed to us. We are putting it together on our own. And in the process, we are becoming active participants in the story, not just receivers.
We’re starting to realize this character, Mia, has problems. We don’t know exactly what the problems are. But we’re watching her process with Jade this dying kangaroo that she left on the road, the choice not to put it out of its misery.
We’re watching this little character-driven structure being built within and between these horror tropes.
This is one of the things that you see in successful genre movies, whether horror or action or rom com, or thriller, or noir, or even slapstick comedy. No matter what the genre is, when you’re working in a genre, there’s almost always a character-driven drama underneath it.
If it’s a really strong movie, there’s usually something human that we can connect to underneath the genre premise.
The truth is, none of us (hopefully) are possessed by any kinds of demons. We don’t have creepy, magic mummified hands reaching out to us like the characters in Talk to Me.
These things don’t happen in our real world, so they’re only powerful if they speak to something that is real to us, that’s true for us, that actually affects us, that connects to our lives.
We don’t know everything that’s coming yet.
We don’t know that the kangaroo is a symbol.
We don’t know what’s happened to Mia’s mom.
We don’t know why she’s estranged from her father.
We don’t know any of those things. But we know that this is a story about a girl who is clinging on to the only family she has.
We’ve also already had the introduction of a thematic, ethical question of the screenplay that’s going to guide the structure of Mia’s journey: Is the right thing to do to let a “suffering animal” live in agony? Or is the right thing to do to put it out of its misery? What is the ethical thing? What is actually right?
And of course, it’s going to turn out that this is the primal question that Mia, the main character, is dealing with as she wrestles with her mother’s death.
By the time we get about 10 minutes into Talk to Me, we’re also going to be locked into the hook of the film.
The hook is really simple. A bunch of kids have gotten hold of an embalmed, mummified hand. It has writing all over it. It’s super creepy. And it allows kids to get occupied by terrifying spirits from another realm. It’s a standard horror genre element– the element that induces the monster to cross from one world to another.
Where does the hand even come from? Well, it turns out it’s connected to Cole, that guy from the beginning of the movie. But how and why and where the hand really came from and all that stuff… the writers barely even deal with it. Because the truth is, we don’t really care. We just need enough to justify it.
The explanation is just there as a convenience, because the first 10 minutes of your movie are not about information or exposition or setting things up. They’re about dropping your character, and your audience, right into the rip-tide of your film and letting it sweep them away.
So, we have this creepy object that allows the magic – a standard horror trope. And we mix it with another horror trope, the character has to invite in the horror, that they have to make a choice that brings the horror in.
These tropes combine as we watch these kids do this terrifying ritual–played out more like a party than the kinds of seance we’ve seen in other movies.
Here’s how it works.
If you light a candle and take the creepy hand in yours and say, “Talk to Me,” something terrifying will appear– a demon, a ghost, a something.
This something (made of amazing prosthetics and makeup) is going to terrify you. It’s going to make you want to pull away, but you can’t pull away. Instead, you have to invite it to enter, by saying “I let you in.”
Of course, the candle and the hand are just twists on familiar tropes. It could just as easily have been a Ouija board, the psychic machine in Big (a slightly different genre, but it’s the same idea of something that induces the magic). It could have been inviting Dracula into your house. It’s the same thing, with a twist.
But the purpose it serves is much more important. By forcing the characters to invite in the magic, you allow the story to happen by the characters rather than just to them. There’s just a little twist. You make them active.
There’s nothing wrong with playing with tropes– without them genre movies don’t feel like genre movies. You just need to make sure to serve them up in your own way.
Once you’ve said “I let you in,” the demon will occupy you. But you want to make sure someone forces you to let go of the hand and blow out the candle before it’s occupied you for more than 90 seconds– or something really bad happens– we don’t know what.
So, of course, by the time we’re about 10 minutes into this movie, Mia will not only have chosen to take the hand and invited the monster into her… but also the rules will have been broken– it will have possessed her for more than the permitted 90 seconds.
So we’re about 10 minutes, 10 pages into Talk to Me. And we’ve taken our character on this huge journey. We’ve already opened the door to change in a profound way.
And you can also see that the entire thematic world of the piece has been set up at this point.
What’s going to happen from here is just another another “yes, and…” to that first image of Talk to Her.
In improv, “yes, and…” means a performer always accepts what he or she is given and adds onto it.
One of the ways you can “yes, and…” in writing is by looking at your earlier vignettes, images, choices, moments, character traits, themes, etc., and asking yourself, “if this is true, what else is true?”
You can think about “yes, and…” like a tennis game. When someone hits the ball to you, you don’t want to just ignore it and hit a different ball back. That’s not the game. Trying to play it that way, regardless of the quality of your serve or the quality of the ball you’re sending back would just feel weird and disconnected.
But this is what a lot of writers do as they develop their screenplay. They think, “Oh, here’s a great idea… And here’s another great idea.”
Instead, what you want to do is to let that first ball – whether it’s a great ball or a crappy ball–whatever kind of ball it is, you want to let it (metaphorically) hit your tennis racket. You want to feel the shiver of it up your arm. And then, as you return the ball, you want to allow that shiver, that feeling of the ball hitting your racket, to inform what happens next.
You’re telling yourself, “Yes, I accept whatever I created, whether it was brilliant, whether it was cliché, whatever it was, I accept it. And now I’m going to build on it and add to it.”
If this is true, what else is true?
On the commercial level, the first 10 pages of Talk to Me set the hook. And you can see how the hook is set. If you’re not into terrifying horror movies, by page 10 of Talk to Me, you are running out of that theater.
But if you are into terrifying horror movies – the ones that have a dramatic personal component, that are saying something about life and society and the world that we can relate to, but that are filled with horror and terrifying images and nightmares – well, ten pages in you’re saying “Whoa! This is for me. I get what it is. And I also get how it’s slightly different. I’ve got a character who’s on a journey. I’m getting who she is, I’m connected to her, I care about her. I know why she’s making her choices. Even though I’m thinking ‘no, no, no, no, don’t do it’ as she makes those choices (because we’re in a horror movie), I understand why she’s making them. I’ve got horror elements dropped in every couple pages to keep me feeling the genre, even as all this beautiful character driven work gets built.”
That’s what’s happening on the commercial level. And it’s important to think about your first 10 pages on the commercial level. Keep rewriting them and rewriting them and rewriting them until they’re beautiful.
But even more important than the commercial level is the thematic level, the spiritual level, the creative level, the writing level, what I call The Me Draft of your script.
Because working so hard on your first 10 pages allows you to truly see, feel, hear everything with specificity. What’s my first image of the character? How is it cool? What’s the first image of Mia? What’s the first image of Riley? What’s the first image of the film? How does this work? How do these things connect?How is it different? How is it connected? How is it doing the genre, but putting a twist on it?
If you don’t do this work, if you don’t really force yourself to answer these questions, you’re not seeing it, you’re not feeling it, you’re not hearing it as you write, and that’s not only going to affect the commercial value of your script, it’s also going to set you back creatively, in ways you can’t even see yet.
What often happens when we write is that we’re so eager to get to the end that we don’t want to slow down and figure out all that stuff. “I’ll figure that out later,” we tell ourselves. “I want to get to my idea.”
But then you get to your idea– which you’ve often inadvertently built on a cliché because you’ve been moving so quickly. So you’ve got a weak, uninteresting foundation. Your characters are not characters. You have drama that is not drama. You have images that are not images because we’ve seen them before, because you rushed through them just trying to set the hook.
If you slow down your writing at the beginning of your screenplay, and force yourself to really see, hear, feel and “yes, and…” everything in your first 10 pages, it will speed you up for the rest of the script.
As we’re going to see in Part 2 of this podcast, everything grows out of those first images, not just for the audience but also for you.
You’re going to find, when you really force yourself to slow down and see, feel and hear everything with specificity, to really know and discover your characters, to find those genre elements and give them a twist, you will realize that everything builds so easily from those elements you put so much work into.
Your theme, your structure, your characters, their journey. What you’re building is all growing organically from those early building blocks. That’s how slowing down will actually help you speed up as you continue.
By the way, that doesn’t mean you rewrite your first 10 pages forever. Sometimes you have to write nonlinearly, discovering future scenes from later in your screenplay, exploring them with the same specificity, and then working backwards, “yes, and-ing…” the later scenes to realize how those early scenes need to be rewritten.
Here are some examples from Talk to Me. (Note there’s a tiny spoiler ahead).
There is a horrifying image later in the film, where Mia – in a fugue dreamstate of confusion where it’s hard for both her and for us to know what’s real– looks at her hands, and those nails and the tips of her fingers look like they’ve been through a meat grinder. You can see that this is a “yes, and…” to the image of those fingernails at the beginning, when Mia’s scratching at them in anxious anticipation of having to go to her mom’s grave.
But there’s no telling, from a structural perspective, which image came first.
It might have been the haunting, terrifying image of the meat grinder nails that woke the writer up from a nightmare. And then he said, “Oh, if this is true, what else is true? Well, maybe we meet Mia at the beginning with just the tiniest taste of that image.”
Or it might have been the little tiny version of just picking at the fingernails that led to the horrifying version of the meat-grinder fingers later.
Regardless, as we get later in the movie, we’re actually going to learn what those images mean and how those fingers got that way. We’re going to continue to build and “yes, and…” those same images.
Similarly, in an early scene Mia confides to her friend that she has a recurring nightmare in which she has no reflection. It’s like she’s not there.
Well, later we’re going to find out what that means. But from a writing perspective, we don’t actually know. Did the writers start with the later image of her looking at a mirror and seeing no reflection (which, by the way, is just a vampire trope with a little twist)? Or did they start with the dream and then manifest what it means later?
As a screenwriter, sometimes you have to go to the future to find the past. And sometimes you have to look at the past to figure out the future.
But one way or another, you have to write those early scenes with specificity. You have to find a way to find the specificity or nothing can grow. If you move too quickly in your first 10 pages, you’re going to end up building a desert. And it’s going to be so hard to get something beautiful to bloom out of that desert.
What’s actually built in the first 10 pages of Talk to Me is a whole thematic world. Because ultimately we’re going to discover that this is a movie about suicide. But it’s not just a movie about suicide, it’s also a movie about drug addiction. But it’s not just a movie about drug addiction, it’s also a movie about being alone in a world where people are watching but not caring. But it’s not just a movie about being alone in a world where people are watching and not caring – it’s also a movie about how hard it is to care and to try to welcome a person who’s suffering so terribly into your family.
Talk to Me is a movie about connection and disconnection and what happens when we just don’t talk to each other, when we don’t let each other in.
This is already built in those opening pages, even though the audience hasn’t processed it all yet, because Mia has a central problem we’re about to discover…
Another small spoiler alert here…
Mia’s mother has committed suicide. And what we’re going to learn later, in a really beautiful scene, is that her dad, from whom she’s estranged, has not been honest with her about her mom’s death. She knows he’s hiding something.
He’s told her a lie that she wants to believe, that her mother didn’t kill herself on purpose, that she took those pills by accident.
So, If this is true, what else is true?
Later, there are going to be several beats built about this lie about mom.
First, Mia’s going to confront her Dad for not telling her the truth, and he’s going to fail to tell the truth again, further damaging the relationship.
Then there’s a running beat of her phone ringing with her Dad calling, and Mia ignoring it. She doesn’t want to deal with Dad.
Then Dad’s going to finally tell her the truth that she doesn’t want to hear.
He reads Mia this beautiful letter that her mother wrote right before her suicide. And that letter is essentially going to say (paraphrased), “I’m finally feeling hope. Because it’s going to be over. Maybe you’re going to feel peace, knowing that I was let out of my misery. knowing that I’m not suffering anymore.”
This is the central question of Talk to Me, which connects all the way back to that kangaroo and ties into the real, dramatic question Mia is dealing with under all this supernatural horror.
Do you put a suffering animal out of its misery? Do you put yourself out of your misery? Is that where hope is?
Or do you somehow find a way to get away from your own demons?
That’s what this story is about.
Talk to Me is more than just a twist on the horror genre. It’s a character-driven story about suicide and addiction, layered underneath a twist on the horror genre.
Just like there’s a reason that Mia starts out scratching her fingernails and visiting her mom’s grave, there’s a reason that Riley and his friend are starting out with a cigarette that Riley doesn’t want to smoke.
If this is true, what else of true? (One final spoiler ahead.)
By the end of Act 1, of course, we’re going to get the big “yes, and…” to this image, when Riley, the kid who didn’t even want the cigarette, takes the hand.
Riley’s going to take the hand, and we’re going to start to realize, “Oh, I get what this is. This is drugs. This is drug addiction. It starts as a party. It starts as a fun thing. And it feels great…. And then it starts to change”
Watch how this underlying theme is built into Mia’s journey as well.
Mia’s reaction, after we have watched the breathtaking horror of her possession, is not what we expect at all.
When people ask how she felt, she doesn’t say it was terrible. She says it felt amazing.
Just like that first hard drug trip, this is a movie about a possession that starts as a way of escape, of feeling great, of being a party, even of connection… but that slowly drags you down into horror.
This thing that is so obviously horrible but that we start to want more and more and more and more… until the hand (the choice) is not even necessary. Until we are in a fugue and reality is no longer clear.
The thing that we think is saving us is actually destroying us. The thing that we think is allowing us to have connection is actually cutting us off from the people who really love us.
That is what Talk to Me is about.
Talk to Me is about a main character who has to make a decision about her own “addiction,” and about what her mom’s death means. Does she believe Mom or does she believe Dad? Which is real?
Did Mom never want to hurt her? Is Mom still out there, fighting for her, trying to protect her? Does she just listen to that voice?
Should you put the kangaroo out of its misery? Is that the way to end the horror? Or is there another way out?
Is it about escaping the horror? Is that where hope lies? Does it only lie in death? Or is it about moving through it somehow? That is going to be Mia’s journey.
The first 10 pages of your film are working in three different, highly valuable ways.
#1 – The first 10 pages of your screenplay are working to help you connect–not to what you think the movie is, but to what the movie really is.
Not to the clichés in your head and the “cool ideas” and the “cool twists and turns” you have planned. No! These pages connect you to the things you didn’t even know yet, the things you only start to discover when you’re writing.
For instance, let’s imagine the questions you might ask yourself writing that first scene with Riley.
What’s he doing? Well, it better be something cool. Oh, maybe his friend is selling cigarettes. And they’re so young, all the dangers of adulthood and drugs and escape are barely even in their minds yet. And we’re going to meet this kid who doesn’t want to smoke a cigarette and whose friend is like, “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m going to smoke if I want!” Maybe we’re going to meet them there…
And eventually you realize– holy crap, I’m not writing a movie about a scary hand. I’m writing a movie about addiction! So, of course, it makes sense Mia’s mom died of a pill overdose.
And then you realize, Oh, even though I’m in a horror trope (essentially the kids saying the equivalent of “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman!” to invite the evil in and make the audience say “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.”) Even though I’m in that trope, my scene isn’t about “Candyman, Candyman Candyman.” My trope is about, “This awful thing feels so good. This is a party. This is fun. This is freedom. This is escape. And then the escape starts to destroy you…”
#2 – The first 10 pages of your screenplay are going to show you the beginning of the structure for your characters’ journey.
Every character begins their journey with whatever their first image is, whatever they’re doing that announces, Here I am.
That is the beginning point of your character’s journey. And everything you build is going to grow from there. So if you don’t have a strong beginning, it’s impossible to understand the value of anything else.
It’s impossible to understand the value of Riley saying, “Please let me touch the hand,” if you don’t know that in the beginning, he didn’t even want a cigarette.
So those first images give you the first structural beat of your character’s journey, which you can then “yes, and…” throughout the rest of your screenplay to find the foundations of your structure.
#3 – Your first 10 pages help you commercially by grabbing your reader and saying, Hey, pay attention! This is what it’s about. This is the genre, this is what’s going on. This is my twist. Ain’t this cool? And guess what, it’s cooler than you expected based on what you just read. Yeah, that’s right, you’re going to frickin’ buy this.”
That is what your first 10 pages are doing.
So stay tuned for Part Two of my Talk to Me podcast, where we’re going to talk more about the structure of Talk to Me. We’re going to pull apart the structure of the film, and talk about how to build structure thematically. There are going to be a ton of spoilers in that episode. So watch the movie between now and then.
If this podcast is helping your writing, and you want to learn more about how to build screenplays organically, then come check out my school. We have fabulous foundation classes in Screenwriting and TV Writing that will teach you seven-act structure and how to build the engine of a TV show. For more advanced writers, we have my Master Class, which is the equivalent of a grad school education, but it will only take you one Sunday a month, and it will leave you with zero debt at a price you can afford that fits your real world life. And our ProTrack mentorship program will pair you one-on-one with a professional writer who will read every page you write, every draft you complete, and mentor you for your entire life. For a tiny fraction of the cost of grad school, you can meet with them weekly, bi weekly, whatever works best for you. It’s an incredible program, and built to allow you to become a professional writer in a way that fits your life and your budget.
I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. If you want to learn more about how to unearth that voice, how to find the beauty in your script and how to build it, then come check out my classes in screenwriting and TV writing, my Master Class or our ProTrack mentorship program at WriteYourScreenplay.com.
You can do it all live, online, from the comfort of your own home. So come check it out.