This is the transcript from SYS Podcast Episode 008: Screenwriting Lessons From The Film Identity Thief.

In this episode I discuss the film Identity Thief and the lessons we can learn from it as screenwriters.

Welcome to the selling your screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers,
screenwriter and blogger at In this episode main
segment I’m going to be reviewing the film Identity Thief written by Craig
Mazin. The film is currently available on HBO Gold. So, if you haven’t seen
the film, go check it out. If you find this episode valuable, please help
me out by giving your review in iTunes or if you’re watching this on
YouTube, please give it a like and leave a comment. I want to improve this
podcast and some honest, constructive feedback is very much appreciated. I
want to thank Chung Mun [sp] who gave me a nice iTunes review and I want to
thank Ginger Shine [sp] and Jeffrey Brown [sp] who left me nice comments
on the YouTube video of the podcast.

To try and generate some iTunes reviews, I’m going to be giving away one
free email on Fax Plus to someone who leaves a review on iTunes from now
until the end of January 2014. This Fax email blast is the same blast that
I use for my own screenplays and is the same blast that I sell on my blog.
So, just leave me an honest review on iTunes and then during the first
episode in February 2014, I’ll randomly pick one person who’s left the
comment on iTunes. And they’ll have their choice of either a free agents
and managers blast or a free producers blast. Also, I’ll be picking a name
from everyone who has posted a comment, including the people who’ve already
posted. So, if you’ve already posted a comment, you’re already entered to
win. I’m not a lawyer, so I really don’t know all the legal ramifications
of doing something like this but I’ll just say void where prohibited. To be
eligible you must post your comment through the iTunes interface. If you
live in a small country and you leave a comment, drop me an email. iTunes
makes it pretty hard to dig through the comments from other countries and
I’ll be checking the US, UK, Australia and Canada but if you don’t live in
one of those countries just drop me an email telling me which country you
live in and where your comment is so I’ll be sure to check that country.
Thank you.

A couple of quick notes. Any website or links that I mention in the podcast
can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript
which every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something
later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at Also, if you want my free guide How
to Sell Your Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to It’s completely free. You just put in your
email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks
along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to
sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional logline,
inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking
for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your
screenplay. Just go to

A quick few words about what I’m working on. The main thing I’ve done these
past couple of weeks is a blast from my sci-fi thriller. The response
hasn’t been terribly great at least in terms of overall script request.
This is the third blast I’ve done for myself in the past six months. In
September I did a blast for my one-location sexy thriller. So far, I’ve
only received about one third of the number of script request for the sci-
fi thriller as I did for the one-location thriller. Part of it might be the
time of the year but it also might be the marketability of the concept but
I’m honestly not sure.

One thing I’ll say though is the quality of responses seems a bit better
than with the sexy thriller. I’ve got quite a few people requesting the
sexy thriller who were looking to make films on a micro budget. And I think
most producers realize that they won’t be able to shoot a sci-fi screenplay
on a micro budget. While there has been a lot fewer script requests I do
think the requests have been higher quality overall. But ultimately it’s
about getting the script optioned and sold. So, we’ll see if that does pan
out. I mentioned my baseball comedy a few times on the podcast. My guess is
when all the script requests are counted, this sci-fi script will end up
with about the same number of script requests as that one got. I actually
talked to a producer a couple of weeks ago who got my query letter for the
baseball script last June. He hasn’t optioned the script. He actually is
trying to talk with a Minor League Baseball team about possibly doing a co-
production with him. So, you never know where these blasts are going to end

Now, let’s get into the main segment. Today, I’m going to be examining the
film Identity Thief to see what we can learn as screenwriters. The
screenwriter, Craig Mazin, is one half of the Scriptnotes podcast and
they’re always reviewing other people’s screenplays on their podcast so I
thought it’d be fun to review something he wrote. [04:36] is based solely
from watching the movie and not from actually reading the screenplay. I did
look around for the actual screenplay and I couldn’t find it. So, if you
have it please email it to me and I’ll add it to my script library. The
original story was written by another writer, Jerry Eaten, and I even read
somewhere that the director Seth Gordon did some re-writing on the project
too. This is definitely not a critique of the script that Craig Mazin
wrote. It’s really just a look at the finished film and the lessons we can
learn as screenwriters from the film. It’s quite possible that some of the
issues that I had with the script or issues that the writer had too but he
just couldn’t get them implemented for whatever reason. This probably goes
without saying but there are many spoilers in this review. If you haven’t
seen the movie and want to see it before hearing how the story all works,
hit the pause button now and go watch it. It’s available on HBO GO as of
right now, mid-December 2013. You can see it there or spend a few bucks and
watch it on iTunes.

Okay. What can we learn as screenwriters from Identity Thief? There were
some good things that I thought the filmmakers did extremely well in
Identity Thief. First, I thought the filmmakers did a good job setting up
the characters and making us like them. Jason Bateman was set up as being
good at his job, a devout family man, and while he may be a little
spineless he still someone that we all like at [05:55]. They set this up
very quickly. Every action and word that he speaks helps to really set this
character up very nicely and quickly. I think a lot of the people can
relate to this guy right off the bat. He works really hard for his boss and
his boss basically craps on him. I really like the opening scene where
Jason Bateman and Jon Favreau who were the bosses basically giving himself
a big fat bonus. Jon Favreau was a really funny guy and a writer himself.
Some of this might have been his ad-libbing. But I actually think this is
one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

The opening scene with Melissa McCarthy is probably one of the most well-
crafted scenes in the film. It’s much more difficult to get us to like her
because she’s basically a pretty despicable person. We see immediately that
she’s stealing this guy’s identity and obviously we’re not going to
necessarily relate to or even like her. I’m not sure they were able to get
us to really like her but they were able to get us to feel sorry for her,
even though she stole Jason Bateman’s identity. It’s a really, really
strong scene that gets our sympathy immediately. I really think it’s
absolutely critical for this film to work because ultimately this is really
a two-hand. And if we don’t like McCarthy’s character, the whole film is
sunk. It was a fun opening scene too. And it really had a nice impact. And
the most obvious reaction to all this is a real hatred of her because we’re
all sitting and, “Geez. Someone could do this to me.” But at the same time
we see her interacting with these people. We see how mean they are to her.
We immediately have a lot of sympathy for her.

Another big thing that they did really well was that the characters both
had clear arcs. This isn’t something that’s as easy as it looks. Jason
Bateman goes from being a schmuck at the beginning of the film who
basically took crap to being someone who stands up for himself. His change
was probably the last in the Melissa McCarthy’s character. McCarthy’s arc
was pretty dramatic. She goes from being a loner, a loser, a thief to
really connecting with someone and being redeemed and doing the right thing
at the end of the movie. Obviously, she never would have turned herself in
for Jason Bateman being in the script but it’s very believable that she
would do this at the end. As I said, this seems easy but trust me, to
actually pull this off in a screenplay is very hard. Go back and re-read a
few of your screenplays and really see if there’s a clear fluid arc to the
main characters. If you can do this one thing as well as they do in this
script you’ll be ahead of probably 97% of the screenplays flooding around
out there.

Another thing that the filmmakers did very well was they made the story
very, very clear. Jason Bateman right at the act break laid out this story.
He told us exactly what he was going to do: He’s going to go get the thief,
bring her back to Denver so that he could record her admitting that she had
stolen his identity. It might have been a little on the nose and [inaudible
08:49] but it was exceedingly clear and we weren’t left wondering where’s
the story going. I see this problem so often with screenplays from newer
writers. After ten or so pages I start wondering where is the story going.
What’s happening? What’s the point of these scenes? And really if your
scripts wander a little bit, look at this opening. As I said, it’s probably
the first act break. Around page 25, have a look at it. Again, it’s a
little [kinky] and maybe a little on the nose but it absolutely clearly
lays out the story and lets us know exactly where the story is going.

Now, let’s talk about some other problems that I saw with the film. In
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat he talks about making sure you answer the
question “What is it?” To me, this was the biggest issue that this film
had. It felt at times like it was an action body comedy, other times the
comic got very broad and slapstick-y, almost bordered on spoof and yet
other times there were these dramatic heart-felt moments between the two
main characters. Ultimately, I think the marketing people did a really good
job overcoming this by billing this as a broad R rated comedy. Except for a
few F-bombs this movie really wasn’t an R rated comedy. They certainly
could have gotten a PG very easily but I suspect they wanted to market this
as an R rated comedy so that’s the direction they went. I think it was a
smart move. So, let’s get into some specifics. There was a number of logic
issues that kind of took me out of the story.

Let’s talk about those for a second. The first thing that struck me as
really odd was when they rested Jason Bateman’s character. I’m not a cop
and I never played one on TV. But I’m pretty sure that these arrest
warrants would have stuff like age, weight, height, eye color and of course
gender. It seemed very odd that they would arrest him and be absolutely
convinced that he was the criminal. The cop, played by Morris Chestnut,
just didn’t seem to act like a real cop. My wife actually found the knife
in our backyard years ago and she called the LAPD and the guy on the other
end of the line literally said to her, “This isn’t CSI.” So, I have no
doubt that the reality of being a cop isn’t like what we see on CSI and
other cop shows. But, the Morris Chestnut character was just so
unprofessional as to really strain credibility. When he thought Jason
Bateman was the criminal he was hot to arrest him but once it wasn’t Jason
Bateman he just didn’t seem to care at all about arresting the criminal.
All he did was give reasons why they couldn’t go arrest her. Jason Bateman
tells him about the nail salon appointment and the Chestnut character just
shrugs it off without even trying to contact the police. It just seemed
really hard to believe. And then later when Jason Bateman’s character comes
up with a plan to lure thief back to Denver, Morris Chestnut thinks this
sounds like a great idea.

Again, I’m not a policeman and I’ve never played one on TV but I just don’t
think policemen go around recommending that you confront criminals and try
and bring them across the country and trap them. And then there’s the boss,
who is ready to fire Jason Bateman even though he knows he’s innocent. It
just didn’t seem like a real reaction from a real person. The boss said he
was the best at what he did earlier in the movie, so there’s certainly some
respect that this boss has for the Jason Bateman’s character. And Jason
Bateman actually quit his old job to go with this new company. So, there
must have been at least some kind of a bond there and yet this boss is just
completely ready to fire him for really no good reason. And then the thing
that seemed really odd was his whole reasoning seemed to be that he didn’t
want the police coming around; he didn’t want the look that there was
something going on, something bad going on. And yet he’s happy to allow
Jason Bateman to bring the criminal into the office and allow the police to
then come in and trap her. So, it just seemed like a really odd reaction
from the boss.

Now, let’s talk about the main premise of the film. As I mentioned earlier,
the plan was very laid out and we knew exactly what was going to happen. So
that was all well done. Again, maybe a little kinky exposition but it was
handled quickly and efficiently, so the story had some good forward
momentum. However, the plan just didn’t seem to make sense to me and I was
taking out of the story while I tried to process what it was Jason
Bateman’s character was going to go and do. I think it might be worth
taking a step back and explaining what the story is all about for people
who haven’t seen the film. The basic premise of the whole film is Jason
Bateman’s character has his identity stolen by Melissa McCarthy’s
character. Bateman realizes that she’s going to be where she’s going to be
when he gets a phone call from a nail salon confirming an appointment.

Apparently, the nail salon Googled him and found his phone number since
McCarthy’s character didn’t leave a number. That seemed a little hard to
believe but that’s maybe a minor issue. The police won’t help Jason
Bateman, which as I mentioned earlier seems a little contrived. So, Bateman
must go to Florida and bring her back himself. His plan is to tell her that
he just wants her to explain what happened to his boss so he can get his
job back but really he’ll be recording her and then the police will arrest
her. As you can tell from this description, there are a lot of things that
must happen for this premise to work. The police have to be unwilling to
help but willing to go along with Bateman’s plan. His boss has to want to
fire him. But mostly, Jason Bateman must believe that he can pull this off.
It seemed unfathomable to me that a normal every day guy basically a guy
like myself thought he was going to be able to do this. If it were set up
as a sort of dog, the bounty hunter character, okay. I could believe it.
The type of sketchy person who’s involved in identity theft is liable to
shoot you if you were to go and confront them. And there was never any
mention of this potential danger.

I mean, we’re dealing with a criminal here. Sure, we as the audience have
seen Melissa McCarthy so we might not think she’s so threatening, but Jason
Bateman’s character doesn’t know this. But even if she’s not dangerous why
would Bateman think that McCarthy would drive across the country with him
and admit what she’s done to his boss, to anyone. What’s in it for her? I
just couldn’t get past this. And it was never really explained.

I want to stop and talk about the concept for a moment. I sort of feel like
this concept is what I call pseudo high concept. At first glance, it seems
really high concept: A guy whose identity is stolen must travel across the
country with the thief. There’s conflict. It’s easy to pitch. You can sort
of see them moving in your head. That’s all great stuff. But as you dig
into the concept, it starts to unravel and there’s a lot of stuff that has
to happen, that the character’s motivation requires a lot of explaining.
And this is a problem that I at all levels of screenwriting write-up to
produced Hollywood movies. If you think about some of the truly high
concept premises of all time, one of the criteria is that they don’t
require a ton of explaining and weird characters to make them work. For
instance, think about Jurassic Park. Sure, there is leap that you have to
take to buy into the technology of creating dinosaurs. But except for that
one leap it pretty much plays out in a fairly logical fashion.

One other small issue that I just wanted to mention was the scene where
they’re in a car and Bateman is really annoyed by Melissa McCarthy’s
singing. We’ve seen that scene so many times. I’m really not sure how it
could end up in a film anymore. There’s always this list floating around of
cliche things that you should never do in your screenplay. And that should
definitely be on the list.

The next issue that I had with the film, and this isn’t necessarily a
problem it’s more a choice that the filmmakers made but I think it didn’t
jive quite right with the rest of the film, there were no real stakes in
this movie. All the stakes have been deflated. At one point, Melissa
McCarthy is in the van that rolls over several times and she walks away
from the accident with nothing more than a bloody nose. And then towards
the end of the film she literally gets hit by a car and she walks away with
barely a scratch on her. So, in the world that the filmmakers have created
there is really no danger or chance of anyone getting hurt. This isn’t
necessarily a problem as some films can work at that level. Again, to use
Anchorman as an example the stakes were pretty thin because the whole thing
was pretty ridiculous. There’s that scene where Jack Black throws the dog
over the bridge and you can literally tell that was just a stuffed dog and
not the real dog. So, yeah, the stakes were deflated but again it was funny
enough that you didn’t care. I’m using Anchorman here as an example because
the sequel’s about to come out and it’s been almost ten years since the
original one came out and it’s kind of considered a comedy classic at this
point so I just thought it’d be a good film to reference. In Identity Thief
it didn’t quite feel like the spoofy tone was in line with the quiet
moments between Bateman and McCarthy as they bonded and became real
friends. I think that was a mistake.

I just want to take a second to compare Identity Thief to the movie Flight,
the Robert Zemeckis film starring Denzel Washington. It may seem like an
odd comparison but I think there’s some good lessons we can learn here.
Also, I just watched Flight on Netflix it’s pretty fresh in my mind. In
Flight, they have this crazy plane crash where Washington inversed the
plane to try and gain some elevation. It’s unbelievable but here’s the
thing: The way the people in the film react is exactly how real people
would react. They can’t believe he inverted the commercial jet liner
either. They think it’s as incredible as I do. His co-pilot thinks he’s
crazy when he suggests this. The guy he’s communicating with on his head
set can’t believe it. And then after the crash they keep talking about how
incredible it was and how good of a pilot he must be to be able to pull
this off. And they talk about how they ran simulations with other pilots
and none of them could safely land a plane in the same circumstances. I’m
not a pilot, so I really have no idea if inverting a commercial airline is
even possible. But they created a world where people reacted in a
believable fashion and so it worked. They address the issues like real
people, so I bought it. In Identity Thief, no one ever mentioned the danger
of what Bateman was doing or even really questioned the plausibility of his
plan so it just didn’t seem believable and it just didn’t seem to really
have its stakes.

Now I want to talk about stakes for a second. This is an important point
and again there’s no right answer but they key as a writer is being aware
of what’s going on and making the right choice one way or another for your
film. The other key takeaway from the movie Flight, and the reason it works
so well, is that the stakes were painfully real. A few people died in the
plane crash and we saw some genuine sadness from the people who knew them.
Washington went to the funeral for one of the women who died in the crash
and you could tell he felt very badly he hadn’t been able to save everyone.
And then at the end the final question blow for Washington was that he
simply could not let the dead woman take the blame for the empty vodka
bottles. He just felt too guilty and couldn’t do it anymore. Again, it’s a
real person with real emotions acting exactly how real people act. They
made the stakes real by creating characters that were real who acted like
real people. Washington was facing going to jail. It was a real problem
with real stakes. That’s how you get the audience’s sympathy.

In Identity Thief, on the one hand they were trying to get us to feel real
emotions for the characters and try to create this nice arc for them as
they bonded. But on the other hand they were no real stakes and some of the
humor was really broad and almost bordered on spoof. It’s virtually
impossible for an audience to feel real genuine emotion for characters in a
movie where there are no stakes and the logic doesn’t really make sense.
Again, look at a movie like Anchorman. Do any of us feel any real emotion
for the characters in the Anchorman? I don’t think we do. But, it was funny
enough that it’s enjoyable to watch and it’s a good film because it’s so
funny. I don’t think the filmmakers of Identity Thief were going for an
Anchorman type of film. They certainly weren’t going for something like
Flight. So, the one last comparison I want to make is to the great John
Hughes’ movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I think that’s all to me
what the filmmakers were going for. Even if the studio wanted something
much more broad. Planes, Trains and Automobiles had some big laughs. I
would certainly argue much bigger than Identity Thief. You can get some big
laughs in the film that has real characters.

The premise of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was much simpler, not nearly
as contrived. They didn’t have all these logic issues. And they had real
stakes. There’s that great scene where they’re going down the freeway the
wrong way and the two 18 wheelers nearly run them over. It’s not only
hilarious, it has real stakes because the Steve Martin character and the
John Candy character act like real people: They’re scared out of their
minds. And there’s that great scene where the policeman pulls them over and
gets a look at their burned up car. And he reacts exactly how a real
policeman would react if he pulled someone over whose car was burned to a
crisp. Again, this is not just funny but it’s also very real and that’s how
you keep the stakes real and keep the characters real. And then at the end
of the film we really felt badly for John Candy. The two characters have
really bonded and the sort of sappy feel good ending, really worked. The
main to brain this film up is that you can have a film that gets big laughs
and still has real stakes with real characters that we care about. For all
the reasons I’ve just mentioned I just didn’t feel much for the characters
in Identity Thief.

I would say there are two key takeaways. If the filmmakers wanted to make a
big broad comedy they should’ve gone harder in that direction and spent
more time and energy trying to be funny and less time on trying to build
the characters. If they were going for more of a heartwarming comedy like
Planes, Trains and Automobiles they should’ve gone harder in that
direction, given us some real stakes that have some real consequences,
shored up the logic issues and probably tried to make the story much
simpler and made sure that the characters acted like real people with real
problems. And this all goes back to my main issue with the film, which is
that I don’t think the filmmakers really answered the Blake Snyder question
“What is it?” The film just felt like it was off-tone to me. It felt like
it cross tone many times. Ultimately, this film was a success. According to
the Wikipedia page it was made for 35 million and grossed 173 million. So
that’s a pretty solid number. I think it basically worked because they did
a good job marketing it as an R rated comedy. There is a market for R rated
comedies. On the poster they sold it as being from the director of Horrible
Bosses and the producer of Ted, so they had a clear market in mind for this
film even though I don’t think this film was really meant for those exact
same fans. But the film just feels like the studio wanted one type of film
while the filmmakers wanted to make another type of film. Ultimately the
marketing department did a good job to get this movie to profitability.

A quick plug for some of my paid services. If you’ve written a few
screenplays and you need some help marketing them, please consider joining
SellingYourScreenplay Select. I offer I whole host of services through my
Select program including access to my agents and managers and producers
email and fax blast. I hope you would log on enquiry letter. And I run
monthly conference calls where you can ask me any screen writing related
questions. Or more simply go to
In the next episode I’ll finally be interviewing producer Mark
Heidelberger. He’s got a wealth of experience in screen play development
and we’ll be examining some recent films like Dallas Buyer’s Club and
Gravity. This episode will be out January 6, 2014. So, keep an eye out for

In this week’s writing word section, I want to build on what I talked about
in the main segment. I get people emailing me all the time asking me if I
would read their screenplay. And a lot of them say something like, “I just
want to know if it’s good enough.” Here’s the thing. If you have to ask if
it’s good enough it means it’s not good enough. I hope everyone who’s
listening to this podcast take some time to really break down the films
that they watch like I have here with Identity Thief. Hopefully, you have
your own opinions about the film and maybe you have some arguments to
counter what I’ve said or even found some problems with the films that I