“The Miserable Adventures of Burt Squire Aboard the Horn High Yo”

A report from the latest Black List Live! stage reading in Los Angeles.

I flew to L.A. a day early for the Black List Feature Writers Lab so I could attend the Black List Live! stage reading of one of my favorite annual 2016 Black List scripts: “The Miserable Adventures of Burt Squire Aboard the Horn High Yo”.

As usual, the reading took place at The Montalban Theater on Vine Street in Los Angeles and there was a big crowd on hand. The actors:

Burt Squire — Milo Ventimiglia
Captain Vernon J. Knux — Matthew Modine
Mel Squire — Janina Gavankar
Trevor Squire — Raphael Alejandro
Wyatt Squire — Brandon Scott

Narrator — Cooper Thornton

Written & Directed by Ben Bolea

Ben Bolea, Cooper Thompson, Brandon Scott, Matthew Modine, Milo Ventimiglia, Janina Gavankar, Raphael Alejandro.

The performance was both terrific and hugely funny in large part due to the interplay between Ventimiglia as Burt trapped with the foul-mouthed, opinionated, blowhard Knux played Modine. Some background on the project from Deadline from October 2016:

LD won a spec battle for a Ben Bolea spec script that has the longest title I can remember. The Miserable Adventures of Burt Squire Aboard the Horn High Yo is fact-based, and follows a family man in the midst of a midlife crisis who embarks on what he hoped would be a dream sailing vacation. He ended up shipwrecked in the Atlantic Ocean with a charming but unhinged sea captain who was off his meds.

Three writing takeaways from the stage reading:

  • Locking together two ‘strange sojourners’ is a tried and true narrative conceit, and it works for a reason: when the characters are well-drawn and come from two very different worlds and world views. It also helps if one or both of them has a way with words and is prone to act on their own self-interests, the former purely for entertainment, the latter to create conflict and twists in the plot.
  • In an era in which the major studios are addicted to branded content, now more than ever original screenplays have to work as actor bait. You need those attachments to get a film made. And the best way to do that: Write compelling, entertaining characters actors will want to play. Tonight Ventimiglia and Modine completely through themselves into their roles and you could tell they were having a hell of a good time doing it. Why? Because they were playing a pair of well-written characters in a compelling narrative circumstance and the chemistry between the two was palpable.
  • At one point late in the reading, Gavankar returned to a secondary character — Wyatt’s self-absorbed teen girlfriend — and gave those handful of lines an awesome take. To which Cooper Thornton threw out an aside: “There are no small roles.” This is how a writer needs to think. Whether a character you’re writing is a primary, secondary, or tertiary one, you need to treat them as complex individuals worthy of an actor’s attention and focus.

Oh, and one final point: The script is yet ANOTHER blast against those who ascribe to the theory that a screenwriter can only write scene description which can be seen or heard on screen. There were dozens of times in which the ‘Bert Squire’ script used scene description to editorialize on the action. Yes, we have to be judicious, but as an extension of our Narrative Voice, we have the freedom to do this. And as in the case of ‘Bert Squire’, it added greatly to the entertainment value of the read.

“The Miserable Adventures of Burt Squire Aboard the Horn High Yo” was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Featurette Takes You Behind the Scenes of Netflix’s Miserable New Show

a series of unfortunate events

I’ve been watching Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I refuse to binge it. Instead, I’ve been taking my sweet time, revisiting Daniel Handler’s books between each episode and reminding myself that the source material is kind of remarkable. As someone who grew reading Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams, the pitch dark comedy, witty prose, and resistance to easy pleasantries sing to me in a special way – they’re the kind of stories that make me wish I had children so I could read these books to them and warp their fragile little minds.

The show is good, too! And really, I’m using this newly arrived featurette as an excuse to talk about the show itself for a moment.

As you may know, A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the story of the Baudelaire children, who are orphaned when their home is burnt to the ground and their parents seemingly killed in the blaze. And then nothing good happens to them for a long time as they’re shuffled from one family member to the next, always pursued by the relentless Count Olaf, who wants their fortune. Like the (underrated!) 2004 film adaptation that failed to kickstart a running franchise, the series looks terrific, boasting incredible production design, killer make-up, and an overall aesthetic that suggests a fantasy universe rather than anything remotely like our own world. This featurette offers a look at all of that and it’s pretty fun.

While I take issue with how the series pushes the larger mysteries and conspiracies to the forefront of the narrative (it feels like a little too much hope, too soon in a narrative that is powered by its own sense of spiraling hopelessness!), the bulk of the series is a charming encapsulation of what makes Handler’s prose sing. Everything that actually occurs onscreen is ridiculous and demands a whimsical touch, but the the deadpan narration from Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket is the constant reminder that we’re dealing with constant misery and death and deceit and that no one is going to be happy when the credits roll.

It’s a tricky combination, to make something so silly that also feels so distressing, but everyone seems to pull it off. And while Neil Patrick Harris gets to chew on the scenery as Count Olaf (and his theme song is killer), it is Warburton who acts as the series’ secret weapon, observing the utter calamity with a solemnity that deserves a throne made out of melted Emmy awards.

A Series of Unfortunate Events is streaming now and you should watch it. It’s good! And you should revisit those books. They’re excellent! Our own Jack Giroux wrote a longer review of the show and I recommend checking that out as well.

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