A few years ago I worked as an assistant to an independent financier who was just starting to consider funding film projects. A large part of my job was to read submitted screenplays and write “coverage” for my boss, “coverage” in which I summarized the script, did page-by-page notes, and provided a recommendation like “promising” or “has potential.” Producers and money people never read screenplays, it was well known, and so this coverage was crucial. Often coverage would come in alongside the submitted screenplays, pre-written by some other assistant in anticipation. Assistants writing to assistants, advocating for the artists they served.
On the day that I quit, a screenplay arrived at the office with the following piece of coverage attached:
TITLE: TAKEN BY THE SKY
GENRE: ROMANTIC THRILLER
READER: KARLA NORMAN
LOG LINE: A reclusive man returns to our Nation’s capitol to exact revenge on the Senator who caused the plane crash that killed the man’s parents, but instead he ends up romantically involved with the Senator’s daughter.
This new screenplay from up-and-coming writer/director ZR is a compelling and accessible work that is sure to draw a large audience. It contains plenty of tension, intrigue, and plot twists, but the romantic undercurrent endears us to the protagonist even as he struggles with difficult decisions. ZR’s signature crackling dialogue keeps the pace humming along throughout. The role of the Senator’s daughter is a fantastic foil and I’m sure you’ll agree that the two leads’ “meet cute” on page 12 (where they flirt even though she is concealed behind a curtain) already holds the feel of a classic cinematic moment.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve worked alongside ZR at the independent level for a few years now, as script supervisor, and I can’t recommend ZR’s work enough, if the festival buzz on this director’s short films weren’t already enough to make you interested in backing Taken by the Sky.
Some page-specific thoughts:
On page 3: CGI, no problem.
On page 9: I know the adage “no kids, no animals,” but this is the only scene involving both and it’s crucial to the plot.
On pages 12-16: see what I mean? Crackling.
Page 17 contains an action that may throw you off on your read: “Genevieve exits.” I’m sure you’ll notice that there’s no character named Genevieve in the scene, and she’s not mentioned anywhere else in the screenplay. This is one of ZR’s signatures. The story behind it is that in the first short film ZR wrote there was a remnant from an earlier draft, that one action: “Genevieve exits” in the middle of a scene involving only two characters, neither of whom was named Genevieve. I pointed it out and ZR noted that it was one of the original character names that had since been changed. So we left it in as an inside joke. It’s now a staple in all of ZR’s screenplays, always on the same page, 17, as a sort of good luck charm. All of ZR’s short films have been in the can on schedule and under budget, and ZR attributes this to Genevieve’s textual presence, never my dynamite supervision, but we have fun with it. We’re currently on the last week of shooting for ZR’s first feature and tomorrow we’ll shoot page 17 (I’m actually writing this to you from behind the monitors on location). Now you’re one of the few in on the secret of Genevieve, and you can be confident that she really is good luck for ZR’s productions.
On page 26: this can be changed from gun issues to the homeless or the environment or anything else political in a heartbeat, so no worries.
On page 34: you’ll see that these types of scenes call for a lot of background work. On today’s shoot we’ve scheduled all the crowd scenes as a bundle: a few days for what ZR calls the “cattle,” the extras, to get in and out and then after that it’s smooth sailing with just the “name” talent.
Today on set we tackled our first crowd scene: a packed café where the leads break up. During a two-shot of the main actor, a woman, an extra, seated not far from the door got up and left the café. Everyone on set seemed confused, but ZR just stared at me, impressed, “Nice work, Karla.” It took me a second to remember that we were on page 17, and it seemed as if Genevieve had just exited. ZR assumed, of course, that I had set up the prank. The extra’s exit had fallen at the exact moment where the action line fell in the script, and only ZR and I (and now you) know about Genevieve. I think ZR set it up to keep me on my toes, and then feigned ignorance. The woman that had “exited” didn’t return. After we wrapped the scene I rewound the video monitor, but the woman was out of focus so I could only get a vague look at her. Dark green coat, long hair the same color as mine. Otherwise, a blur. I like the idea of bringing jokes to life. Maybe we all started out life as jokes, like Genevieve.
On page 44-47: this picture album might be a good place to insert cameos. The mother and father that haunt the protagonist in photo form could possibly be name actors.
Like my mother kept a framed photo at the end of the hallway at my childhood home. In the photo she was five and stood on a street overlooking the beach in Nice. She held a plush pig and behind her, only yards away on the sidewalk, was Picasso. My father said he was the one who recognized the artist after my mother had unknowingly kept the photo in a dusty album for thirty-five years. It was the best story they had so they told it often. As a teenager I was convinced I would make the same type of discovery if I waded through enough snapshots of myself at young ages. Of course, no matter how much I looked with my magnifying glass I didn’t see any famous people captured randomly behind me. I made myself feel better by thinking that someday, when I looked again, one of those people in the background would have become a star and I would get to frame the photo and tell stories. Now I have a million photos with stars, but they’re all in the foreground and I’m in the background, even if we’re standing side-by-side. Excuse the digression.
On page 72: I think there’s a typo. This is meant to say “vanished” not “varnished.” I think. I hope that’s helpful and clears up any confusion.
Today, our final day of crowd shooting, we had a gaggle of background on set for the film’s climax at a crowded airport gate (ZR likes airports). ZR was very hands-on so I was bored behind the monitors. When all the extras were standing, packed together tight to board the “plane,” I glanced in the monitor and noticed the same dark green coat. For a moment, in the middle of the crowd, I thought I saw Genevieve. But by the time I removed my headphones and stood up to look over the monitors all the extras had filed into the walkway and were out of sight. As soon as ZR called cut I rounded them up, under the pretense of resetting the scene, but there wasn’t a single extra wearing anything green, no Genevieve. I even walked to the end of the walkway but no one was there hiding. The call sheet had 46 extras showing up, and I did a thorough head count and ended up with 46. But I rewound the video and there was Genevieve, slightly blurry, yes, but I could swear she was looking at the camera, the monitors, at me. We wrapped the next day (on schedule, as per usual), and ZR suggested I take few days to rest up and complete this submission for you. “Always think one project ahead, Karla.” ZR left me with that.
On page 82: this scene kicks off the third act and does so really well. It’s nice to be in my apartment at my computer typing this, comfortable and really able to focus on writing coverage to you. I do genuinely like this script.
On pages 93-99: there are tons more good things to look at. More attributes of the Taken by the Sky script that crackle, and that only the package of ZR as writer/director can really pull off. Please.
RECOMMENDATION: VERY PROMISING
On page 100 I should write something. I should write something, like a real something, my own script. That story about my mother and Picasso frozen in the old picture together, that’s a good story that could be the makings of something. It’s my father’s favorite, I know that much. I should write the screenplay. Would you read it? Would I have to do coverage on it, too? Would you pay me for the writing I did to convince you to pay me for the writing I did? Would you even pick it up? The moral of my screenplay will be watch the background. The background is important.
On page 104 I’m having trouble concentrating, I feel blurry and can’t stop picturing Genevieve, out of focus.
On page 107 I call ZR to request the dailies from the days when Genevieve appeared. I couldn’t help but think she might be clearer on film, but ZR hasn’t gotten back to me. I stare at those two words on page 17 instead and I let my eyes go out of focus and the letters fatten and rearrange and look like different letters and then I shut my eyes I can still read them.
On page 121 I’m always just there. Behind the script, behind the monitors, behind lights and gaffers and boom guys and clothes racks, I’m behind the actors, I’m behind money and the sets. I’m behind the plants.
On page 130 ZR is just using me, keeping me on the payroll because I know you. I know you, and ZR needs more money and profile to pull off this next movie with its crashes and Senators and the talent will flood in and I’ll be out of the picture.
On page 142 who are you really? Where did you get your money? Is it really you reading this? Who are these characters, anyway, I haven’t told you anything about them, have I? I’m sure they’re interesting.
On page 153 I spent hours and hours today looking through all the photos I have saved in my computer, and after searching back three years I came across it. A snapshot in a crowded club on the west coast and ZR and I are together, sweaty and arms around each other. ZR’s got a wild grin full of excitement and it’s the night after we wrapped our first film. There’s someone in the background with a dark green coat.
On page 161 I have short hair and Genevieve’s hair is long and stupid.
On page 170 I can’t get to sleep because I keep hearing the sound of footsteps receding, right outside my room, like someone’s walked out of another apartment and is heading for the elevator. But there’s no sound like a door shutting and no ding from the elevator and no return trip. The footsteps just go past me through the thin stucco and then start over and pass me again, running the length of my body the same way each time. I turn up the music on my computer speakers to try and block it out. “Once in a million years a lady like her… rises.”
On page 17 I change every character name in Taken by the Sky to Genevieve and she’s always exiting and doing other things besides.
On page 17 I’ve written my name over and over again next to each of her names. G is for Genevieve and K is for Karla. We don’t share any letters.
On page 17 I sit upright in bed, behind my computer monitor, typing this. I can see a figure down the hallway. It’s Genevieve. She stands in the living room with her head cocked slightly, expectant, impatient. Her hair is cut short now and she is in full focus. And Genevieve leaves the room. I hear the door this time, the footsteps in the hall only pass once, the elevator dings, and Karla is up.
And Karla leaves the room, and leaves the apartment, and leaves the hallway and the elevator and the lobby and the garage and the exit and the gate and the sidewalk and the crosswalk and leaves the street, leaves leaves and parks and parking lots leaves taxis and vans and leaves terminals, leaves time zones and time zones and oceans and eras, and leaves the stars and leaves the script and the dailies and lights and photos and cubists and names, and connections, and leaves monitors and laundry lists, leaves millions of millions and thousands of hundreds of dollar bills and a classic cinematic moment, leaves the background behind. Karla writes herself right off the page, right off the
Henry Hoke was a child in Virginia and an adult in New York and California. His work appears in PANK, Gigantic, Birkensnake, Concord, and The New Short Fiction Series. His plays have been produced on the West Coast and at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival and published by Snail Press. He co-created and directs ENTER>text, a living literary journal in Los Angeles.