Across the most bourgeois quarters of the known world, youngish men with expensive educations and an unhealthy interest in the works of Italo Svevo have been driven by plague from their favorite coffee shops. For the first time in their lives they cannot go to Friday night loft parties and snicker about more successful contemporaries. What is to be done with all these days that stretch out languidly into infinity? Should they volunteer to dig graves? Help 3D-print a new ventilator design? Call their housebound mothers?
No. Don’t be naive. When the going gets tough, the tough dust off their copies of The 101 Habits of Successful Screenwriters and get down to work. I mean, didn’t Shakespeare write King Lear during a quarantine or something? That could be you!
Here, offered in a spirit of amity, helpfulness and complete sincerity, is a guide to help every budding Spike Jonze write the Great Coronavirus Screenplay.
Remember that every great screenplay is a story, first and foremost. Remember, too, your Joan Didion: we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Stories help guide people through their lives. Unfortunately, you may not have much of a life, so you’re going to have to cleave pretty close to the moods, settings and personalities you’re already familiar with. Millennial ennui; Williamsburg; other people with MFAs from an Ivy. This is what you know and what you care about.
Write a treatment
Let’s decide on a title. He’s Just Not That Into Flu? Living La Vida Lockdown? 500 Days of Quarantine? Crazy Stupid Flu? The Ventilator? Corona and Chill? How to Lose A Guy in A Global Pandemic? 10 Things I Hate About Wu-Flu? Love in the Time of Corona? Let’s go with the latter, before we go utterly insane.
Your treatment should be about 50 to 100 pages long. A detailed plan, it outlines the plot, scene by scene. It includes background detail on your characters’ lives, what they’re going to say and do, think and feel. This provides your foundation going forward into the writing process. So, something like this:
Love in the Time of Corona
By day, Jessica (27), our protagonist, is a part-time employee at a major Manhattan publisher. By night she writes her book There’s Still Work To Be Done: The Revolutionary Power of One Women’s Indignation. Jessica is hot, has cute bangs and 50,000 followers on Instagram. She writes about minor fluctuations in popular culture for the New Yorker. Her social circle is Ava (26) — the innocent free-spirit, Mia (27) — the rebel, and Olivia (26) — the polyamorous one. They’ve shared literally everything together: life, love and yoga mats. BUT Jessica has lupus, and has been quietly taking immunosuppressant drugs for years as a result. (Her essay Lupus Lows was one of the most shared pieces published by Electric Literature last year.) Before the virus hit, Jessica met Jason (30) on a Hinge date at Maison Premiere. It went well — but how well? Jason is tall, unconventionally attractive and works translating obscure Balkan novels for an indie press. He says the right things (mostly), though there’s a chance that beneath the platitudes he might be ‘problematic’. Still, Jessica enjoyed the date. BUT both of his parents work as pulmonologists at Lenox Hill Hospital. The virus is about to change everything.
Continue in this manner for another 80 pages; detail your characters childhood traumas, favorite colors, relationship with pets etc. Don’t forget that there should be a plot somewhere in here too!
Didn’t Jean Luc-Godard say ‘All stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order’ or something? Your story is going to need a key event to start with, when Jessica and Jason first meet. You’ll need a struggle against some overwhelming force that separates them (hello COVID-19); maybe a zany subplot involving the girlfriends and a serious one involving Jason’s parents; then a crisis, a climax and a resolution. And don’t forget some flashbacks. Everyone loves flashbacks. You could start with one:
INT – APARTMENT – LATE AFTERNOON
JESSICA is sitting on her Peloton bike. It’s April 2020. Rain slides down the windowpane. She hasn’t left her apartment — not even to go to Whole Foods — for almost a month. A message from JASON appears on her iPhone: ‘Hey. Corona and chill?’. She gets a faraway look in her hazelnut eyes. It was only weeks ago that they first met…
EXT – OUTSIDE MAISON PREMIERE – EVENING
JESSICA and JASON are leaving the bar. She glances at her phone. He lights a cigarette.
(Exhaling) The first woman to eat an oyster…was brave.
What do you mean?
It shows a certain appetite doesn’t it. A willingness to try things. She was probably also the first woman to-
Jesus, Jason don’t be gross. You were actually doing well in there.
(Half-laughing) Sorry. You went all out on the shellfish though. I find that intriguing.
(Turning away) If you think that because I like an oyster it means I’m going to give you a blow-
(Interrupting) Hey, Jessica, hey! That’s not what I meant, come on.
I’m getting an Uber.
I’m sorry. Come here. You had fun tonight didn’t you? (He stubs out his cigarette.) Forget what I said about oysters.
(Cautiously turning around) Yeah I did. I was having fun in there. I’m not having fun out here. Save the situation. You have one shot.
(Taking her hands) You know that bit in Annie Hall, where he’s like-
(Interrupting; pushing him away) Jesus, Jason! Woody Allen?! You’re saving this situation with Woody Allen? Are you going to quote Harvey Weinstein next? Did you vote for Trump?
Whoa, whoa. I’m sorry. I’m not like that. I would have voted for Hillary twice if I could have. All I’m saying is-
(Interrupting) Say it quickly, my Uber is almost here.
There’s that bit in Annie Hall when he’s like ‘look, let’s get it over and done with.’
Get what over and done with.
The part where they kiss.
You think I’m seriously going to kiss you after this.
On the basis of the last five minutes: no. Fair enough. But the two hours before…
They kiss. The Uber appears at the curb.
OK, well, if you decide to message me tomorrow, maybe don’t open with anything authored by a child molester. Goodnight, Jason.
She gets in the car. The Uber drives off.
(Puffing out his cheeks) What a woman.
What an asshole.
Only include the facts that the audience needs to know in the moment. For instance, you can probably get away with showing the virus through a montage of your characters looking at Twitter and saying ‘Oh shit’. You (probably) don’t need to write a scene showing patient zero in Wuhan literally eating a bat.
When it comes to Jessica’s Lupus you could show her taking her meds in the morning while she talks about Jason on the phone with Olivia. Resist the urge to write a scene where she turns to face the camera and says: ‘I have Lupus by the way.’
Characters and dialogue
Your treatment should be full of valuable background information on your characters. Writing a good character means they have depth; what they say and do will sometimes be different from what they secretly want. Your characters should be based partly on people that you know, which is why most of them will be morally dubious, appalling types.
Your dialogue needs to sound realistic, so make sure none of your characters speak entirely in pig Latin. Normally you would listen carefully to people around you in cafes, bars, restaurants and on the subway to capture the cadences and rhythms of everyday speech.
Now that those are closed for the next six months, you’ll have to do the same but for Skype/Zoom conversations. Your script is going to have plenty of these between Jessica and Jason. Screenplays are as much about striking imagery as they are about words though. Maybe in one of the Jessica/Jason Skype scenes they could both wear silly hats? Or play strip poker as a fun virtual date?
Rewriting and reviewing
Strip down your dialogue as much as possible. Is Jessica’s lengthy speech about what a dickhead Brett Kavanaugh is in scene five really that relevant?
Read your screenplay aloud to friends to make sure it flows well. (If you don’t have any friendsm pay somebody to listen to you read it.)
Lastly, film is a visual medium. Can you really write the great corona movie without a scene where our star-crossed lovers are separated by an unbreachable pane of glass?
INT – CORONA WARD LENOX HILL HOSPITAL – EVENING
JASON, wearing a ski-mask, is led into the ward, secretly, by his DAD, who leaves. JESSICA is stuck behind a pane of glass, coughing.
Well you’ve definitely seen me at my worst now.
You’re even more beautiful now than you were on Zoom last week.
I looked like trash and you know it.
JESSICA’s ventilator starts bleeping. She’s coughing.
I never… (she coughs again, violently) told you about my condition.
You didn’t have to. I guessed. (He begins to cry). Everything is going to be OK, you know. They’ll get Woody Allen in the end. And you’ll get out of here.
(The sound of various screams of agony and pain around the ward can be heard.) JASON takes off his mask and walks towards the glass. JESSICA does the same. They kiss the glass.
(Holding up a piece of paper). This is my Twitter password. (She coughs). Promise me one thing.
If I don’t make it… (She coughs a large pink lump into her hand) …promise me you’ll tweet from my account… (coughs) that this crisis, the spread of the virus, has nothing to do with open borders.