Their Killing Season
Tasked with writing a spec script for the spy thriller Killing Eve, Chapman University grad students heeded their prof, who said: Come up with a story you want to see… and have fun! One student took the advice literally, creating dialogue while skateboarding. Read their scenes here.
When Caitlyn Clear heard her professor announce that he wanted everyone in his graduate class, one-hour television drama, to pen a spec script for the darkly comic spy thriller Killing Eve, she was elated.
"I said, 'Yeah, I get to watch it again!'" says Clear, a grad student at Chapman University in Orange, California, where she is working on an M.F.A. in television writing and producing.
She ended up watching the first season three times, mostly to home in on the dialogue. "I knew that was the part I needed to get right," she says, referring to the zingy, unpredictable exchanges between the lead characters.
Eve, wryly played by Sandra Oh, is a clever if emotionally messy British intelligence officer who engages in a coquettish cat-and-mouse game with the psychopathic assassin Villanelle, endearingly portrayed by Jodie Comer.
A scene from Clear's bang-up script, "My Blood on Your Hands," appears here on the site, along with a novel take by her classmate, Ryan Good, who titled his episode "That Can't Be Healthy," and scenes from the rest of the class.
Both students showed a clear grasp of the series' tone, intent and characters. It's easy, in fact, to imagine their inventive ideas folded right into the middle of season two had the real scriptwriters not taken the series in a different direction.
Their professor, Victor Bumbalo, still recalls the lessons he learned from renowned writer-producer David Milch about how to vault into someone else's show without knocking it off-kilter. In 1995, Milch hired him to write for NYPD Blue. "He said, 'Don't try to write like me. But enter the world and bring something of yourself to it.'"
Among other lessons that Bumbalo imparted upon his nine students was how to give and take criticism. "In a writers' room, that's going to occur all the time," he explains. He also asked them to dig below the surface and find the subtext. "I would always ask, 'What's your episode really about? What's underneath it? What do you reveal about the characters?'"
Good says that Bumbalo impressed upon him the importance of keeping Eve paramount. Eve, unlike Villanelle, is no psychopath, and therefore has the capacity to change. That makes her key, Bumbalo told him, even if Villanelle is more fun to write for.
So Good conjured up the idea of bringing Eve back to America to attend her mother's funeral. Shedding light on Eve's conventional upbringing and her discord with her mom, he figured, would help explain why she's become such a risk-taker. "Suddenly you could see why this other world was so attractive to her," Good says.
Before they began writing their hour-long episodes, which would ostensibly slot somewhere into season two (Bumbalo suggested they avoid watching the new season), he had the students analyze other successful scripts, including Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
They researched the mind of the psychopath and how to compose intriguing non-verbal scenes. He also required them to come up with three Killing Eve concepts and pitch them to the class before choosing one.
"He said, 'Come up with a story you want to see. A story that you think can last you 52 pages. And have fun,'" recalls Clear, who discovered that she could better improvise dialogue by jumping on her skateboard and extemporizing in motion. "The dialogue kind of led my script, " she says.
To invent the corresponding action, which, in the following scene, takes place in a hotel room, Clear found it helpful to close her eyes and envision step-by-step what each character would do. Because her mom reminds her of Eve in some ways, she substituted her at times. "I thought, if my mom came in and saw a man hanging, what would she do? Just go for the legs!"
Good, meanwhile, arrived at an ingenious plot twist. He imagined Villanelle crashing the funeral in the guise of a former lover of Eve's mother, shocking everyone with recitations of their supposed private moments.
It was an idea that just "popped into my head," Good says, but neatly syncs with the kinky outlandishness of the real series. Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (season one) and Emerald Fennel (season two), it airs on AMC.
"A scene like that is very, very much a Killing Eve scene," Bumbalo says. After Good turned in his script, he and his wife sat down to finally watch season two. They chuckled to see that there were more than a few places where Good's ideas dovetailed with the action. He says, "So it was a fun little game of 'Oh, I got that one right!' in the eyes of the Killing Eve writing team."
Sample a scene from Clear's and Good's scripts, along with scenes by Chapman students Emily Coleman, Kalley Hoshaw, Blake Jelinski, Dorothy Lolagne, Veronica Marin, Puja Nigam and Caitlin Vukorpa. For the students' scenes, click here.
This article, and the accompanying scenes, originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 8, 2019