The Black Cat: A Screenwriting Exercise from Aaron Sorkin’s Screenplay Masterclass.
This article contains my submission for a screenwriting exercise from the Aaron Sorkin Screenplay Masterclass. The objective is to take a famous (public domain) short story and adapt it to the first ten pages of a screenplay. The story I chose from the list provided on the course was “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe.
I have tried to adapt the story so that a) Vincent Price could not possibly be envisaged playing a part and b) it wasn’t just another story about the protagonist fridging the only woman in the story and then experiencing a lot of man pain.[i] I’d really like to know if it worked out!
I have never written a screenplay before, so I’d appreciate feedback. Don’t feel you have to be nice or lie to spare my feelings, but do remember Bill and Ted’s maxim.[ii] Yeah. I’m dead nervous about sharing this. Here goes:
After some wonderful feedback I’ve updated the script. This version should have a more acceptable format (apparently my web version was not good), and hopefully better obeys rules of scriptwriting (most of which I had never heard of, this course doesn’t really cover them)! Thankyou to everyone that gave me early feedback, and I hope I’ve done a good job of adapting to your observations.
The new, improved version can be opened as a PDF by clicking below:
If you’d like to see the original version, you can find it here. The original is still a web page.
If you don’t like PDFs and don’t mind loose formatting, here’s the latest version in full:
|“THE BLACK CAT”
INT. SMITH KITCHEN – DAY
OSCAR and Molly “SMUDGE” Smith live in a terrace council house that is in need of repair. Their home is clean, but is not and has never been tidy.
The front door leads straight into the kitchen. Watching the letter box is PLUTO, a black cat or, possibly, the personification of a malevolent spirit that communicates telepathically with its mistress. He has that sort of look.
A kettle is boiling nearby. When, “pop”, the post comes through like a toaster ejecting toast, Pluto begins to miaow, incessantly.
Finally, Oscar comes over and takes the post. Oscar is a secondary school teacher in his late twenties, wearing a tie and a short sleeved shirt that cost less than a replacement letter box.
The cat follows him to the kitchen table, where he starts flipping through the letters. Bills, final warnings, overdue credit card statements. He reaches a final letter, different from the others, and opens it to read. Pluto jumps onto the table.
OSCAR: Oh no.
His head thumps on the kitchen table. He recovers, and puts the letter in his pocket. It crumples. He pours the coffee and picks up Pluto.
OSCAR: Come on, Pluto. If we feed her coffee first she might not kill us both.
INT. SMUDGE’s BASEMENT – DAY
Oscar knocks on the basement door with the toe of his show (he’s carrying a mug of coffee and the cat).
OSCAR: Smudge? Are you decent?
SMUDGE: I’m working, Oscar!
OSCAR: I brought coffee and cat.
Oscar pushes down the handle of the door with his elbow and walks down the stairs in Smudge’s studio. There is a large desk with an artist’s board, and a computer that is five years old but easily the most expensive thing in the house.
The walls covered in sample art and character designs from her webcomic “The Black Cat.” Smudge may be talented – bright watercolours with energetic lines – but it’s basically derivative manga bullshit. You can tell when she looks at it that she knows this as well.
Smudge sits at her computer. She is the same age as Oscar, but looks older, and she wears jogging clothes several sizes too big.
SMUDGE: Come here Pluto.
Smudge switches windows on her computer and turns in her chair so that the cat can come to her, which he does. OSCAR follows down the stairs.
SMUDGE: What time is it?
SMUDGE: Wednesday evening?
OSCAR: Thursday morning. Going outside today?
Oscar kisses her on the cheek. She strokes Pluto.
OSCAR: Post arrived.
SMUDGE: Did you open it?
OSCAR: Watcha working on.
He looks over her shoulder. On the computer screen is a spreadsheet showing profit and loss from her webcomic. There aren’t a lot of numbers.
OSCAR (CONT…): Hey, black numbers. Black numbers are good.
SMUDGE: I’m making less than minimum wage.
OSCAR: Internet money’s like dog years. You’ve got to multiply it by seven.
SMUDGE: Is that what you’re going to tell the bank?
OSCAR (Moves over and starts looking at her drawings): These are great. Did Jones agree to cut the hosting charges?
SMUDGE: He did. He will. He’s not competitive ‘cause he won’t host porn on his server.
OSCAR: And there you stand, the last bastion of decency on the internet.
SMUDGE: I’d be better off working in Starbucks.
OSCAR: For the uniform?
SMUDGE: For the free coffee. (She makes a mock disgusted face and puts down the coffee he brought)
OSCAR: Come help me feed the kids.
INT SMITH LIVING ROOM – DAY
Oscar and Smudge make their way back up the stairs and into the living room.
The Smith’s living room is not a place for human beings. There are many pets here; birds, goldfish, a small monkey, and a bowl for a dog that we can’t see
As they talk, Oscar works his way around the cages, feeding and watering the animals. Smudge follows him carrying Pluto.
OSCAR: I could stay and have breakfast with you.
SMUDGE: You’ll be late for work.
OSCAR: They all have iPhones. They practically teach themselves.
SMUDGE: If you’re staying for breakfast then it’s bad news.
OSCAR: Yeah. I’m sorry.
He hands her the crumpled letter from his pocket and gets back to the animals. She smooths the letter on her thigh.
SMUDGE: What for?
OSCAR: The union isn’t going to pay.
Smudge stares at the letter without reading.
OSCAR (CONT…): Hey, look, the paper offered a payment plan.
SMUDGE: I don’t see why we have to pay their lawyers.
OSCAR: Because we lost.
SMUDGE: I lost, Oscar. I got fired.
OSCAR: And they were wrong. And you got better. And the union should be paying.
INT SMITH KITCHEN – DAY
The argument follows them back into the Kitchen. Smudge sits at the table.
SMUDGE: Was this all the mail? (She flips through the letters) Any good news?
The phone rings. Smudge is right next to it, but she does not pick it up. Oscar goes past her and answers the phone.
OSCAR: Sure, she’s right here, I can… Ok… She hung up. Who’s Poppy?
SMUDGE: Poppy Who?
OSCAR: Poppy who was just on the phone and says you need to come in this morning.
SMUDGE: Must be a wrong number.
OSCAR: Is it a job interview? You can tell me.
SMUDGE: No. No! I thought you supported what I was doing here?
OSCAR: Of course I…
SMUDGE: But you want me to get a job?
OSCAR: I want you to be happy…
SMUDGE: You want me to get a uniform and tell people to have a nice day.
OSCAR: Don’t forget the free coffee.
SMUDGE: It’s not funny.
OSCAR: Look, if you decide to go back to work I’ll support you. There are other newspapers in other towns. I can change schools. I’ll go where you go, you know that.
But I think you should make the business work. You’re too talented to waste your time working for someone else. These things take time. The comic is starting to bring in money, and those numbers were the best we’ve seen since you started.
I’ll sell the car
SMUDGE: If you sell the car how will you get to work?
OSCAR: I’ll steal a bike. I used to ride into college, remember?
He goes to the fridge to get some juice, avoiding meeting her eyes. What he sees in the fridge freezes him solid.
OSCAR: Smudge? Whose beers are these in the fridge?
SMUDGE: Yours? (Long Pause. Smudge looks at Pluto.) Did you put them there, Pluto?
OSCAR:You want me to take them away?
SMUDGE: It’s ok, Oscar. You can have beers in the house. I’m ok.
Oscar clearly wants to say something more, but doesn’t find the words, then chickens out and closes the fridge.
OSCAR: Watcha going to do today?
SMUDGE: Draw. Write. Say rude things about the union on the internet.
OSCAR: You’ll be home all day?
SMUDGE: Where else would I be?
OSCAR: It’s not a problem, if you want to go out. I can feed Pluto.
SMUDGE: No you can’t. And why would I want to go out? You’re going to be late for work.
OSCAR: You sure you don’t want me to take those beers away?
SMUDGE: Get out of here before you get fired too.
He grabs his coat, gives her a kiss and heads towards the door.
SMUDGE: Hey, Oscar?
OSCAR: (Popping his head back through the door) Princess?
SMUDGE: I love you. Don’t sell the car.
OSCAR: Dog years, Smudge. The bank will understand.
Oscar leaves. Smudge strokes the Pluto for a bit, then puts him on the table and looks at the letter. The cat watches her until she can’t stand it anymore.
SMUDGE: It wasn’t a lie, Pluto. It was a projection. The site will make money.
Pluto is not convinced. Smudge gets up and checks out of the window as Oscar drives the car away.
SMUDGE: Do you think it’s safer to go out the back? (She looks back at Pluto, who still isn’t convinced.) Fuck you, Pluto.
She pushes the cat off the table.
INT. POPPY’s PUBLICITY – DAY
Poppy’s Publicity is based in two featureless rooms in a featureless warehouse smack back in the middle of a featureless industrial estate.
The first room is Poppy’s office. POPPY is a middle aged woman in a Marks and Spencer’s suit. She is being interviewed by two police officers, DI TIGGER and DI SHADOW.
Poppy’s Office looks out over the second room via a large window that gives the impression of a police interview room, or a lab for aliens to observe the behaviour of monkeys.
Smudge comes through the front door into the second room, and then walks into the office without looking up. Everyone stops talking and stares. Poppy’s eyes widen and she shakes her head, as if she were trying to shake an insect from her nose. Smudge backs out and closes the door.
She trudges over to one of two tables that look like they have been stolen from a school. There are boxes of leaflets and boxes of envelopes. SMUDGE sits at her table, picks up one box of leaflets, and two boxes of envelopes.
At the other table sits FELIX. Felix grunts into his beard as he stuffs leaflets mechanically into envelopes. He is hypnotically fast. On his T-Shirt is a Manga girl with impossible cleavage positioned for an up-skirt shot of her underwear. Emblazoned above the startled girl’s pink hair are the words “Fuck Bitches.”
Smudge starts stuffing envelopes. She lacks both the speed and the zen-like quality of Fleix. The clock on the wall anaemically struggles to move its own second hand.
FELIX: Hey. Hey, Smudge. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey, Smudge.
SMUDGE: What do you want Felix?
FELIX: You got any cigarettes?
Time is passing. Smudge looks at her hands. Her hands are shaking. She looks back at the office. The police officers are still talking to Poppy.
SMUDGE: Felix, do you know what’s going on in there?
Felix doesn’t answer. She goes back to stuffing envelopes, but she cuts her finger. She opens a drawer, pulls out a plaster. She squeezes the finger and watches the blood. She puts on the plaster.
FELIX: Hey. Hey, SMUDGE. You got anything to drink?
The police officers leave the office, followed by Poppy, and walk outside. Poppy comes back in, then goes into the office. She throws a paperweight at the wall.
Poppy rifles her desk and empties out the filing cabinet. Smudge and Felix continue stuffing envelopes. Try as she might, Smudge can’t go as fast as Felix.
Poppy comes over to Smudge and puts an envelope of money on the table. It’s not a lot, low denomination notes that have been used elsewhere.
SMUDGE: What’s this?
POPPY: Wages for this week.
SMUDGE: I’m not done. You haven’t done the count.
POPPY: It doesn’t matter.
SMUDGE: But you haven’t done the count. I can go faster.
POPPY: It doesn’t matter. There won’t be a count. I have to let you go.
POPPY: I have to let you go. You don’t work here anymore.
SMUDGE: Poppy, please. I can stuff faster. I need the money.
POPPY: I can’t help you.
SMUDGE: But what am I going to do?
POPPY: Something else.
EXT. POPPY’s PUBLICITY – DAY
A faceless industrial estate. Smudge sits on the curb by the road, the envelope of money on the floor next to her. She is peeling and replacing the plaster on her finger. The sunlight is too bright.
Felix comes and stands close enough that he casts his shadow over her. He’s clutching a larger envelope of cash.
SMUDGE: She fire you too?
FELIX: There’s an off-licence by the garage, right?
SMUDGE: Yeah. Good luck, Felix.
FELIX: Whatever. You got any cigarettes?
SMUDGE: I don’t smoke.
Felix wanders off. Smudge takes one last look at his T-Shirt.
SMUDGE: Fuck bitches.
Please feel free to leave any feedback that springs to mind.
If you’ve got a moment extra for some questions (any or all as you feel):
What do you think the characters want? What is getting in there way?
Does the story make sense? Do you understand what is going on?
When did you realise SMUDGE was lying to OSCAR? What do you think she’s up to? What do you think is going to happen next?
What was your favourite part and why?
If there was one bit you would change, what would it be?
Thanks for taking the time to read, and helping me learn how to write for the screen. It’s been fun!
[i] Not that I don’t enjoy a bit of man pain here and there. But, seriously, bored now. Yes, I am quoting Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, stop reading this and go binge watch Buffy.
[ii] Be excellent to each other. Obviously.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/135835988@N06/26965457831″>The P</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>