Hello everybody. Like a lot of you preparing for Thanksgiving, today is a travel day for me. I’m heading back to Chicago. Do not fear, however. One of Scriptshadow’s new consultants, Alexander, will be taking over review duties. I’d link you to his bio so you could learn more about him but I’m still at a point where WordPress won’t allow me to link anything! Very frustrating. But anyway, just click “Script Notes” up above and look for “Alexander.” – I want to apologize about comments disappearing or taking a long time to show up. Still sorting that out. Also, when I get to Chicago tonight, I’ll put up a post where you guys can give me your feedback and note any issues you’ve had with the site. I know “mobile” is a big one. I’m going to try and get to everything as soon as I can. In the meantime, enjoy Alexander’s review. I thought it was great!
Genre: Period Drama
Premise: Based on the true story of a New York City architect involved in the race to build the world’s tallest building in the year 1930.
About: Writer’s most recent spec, POMPEII, was taken into studios this summer by big time producers but he’s still looking for his first sale as far as I know.
Writer: Eric Kirsten
Details: 115 pages
The spec market is tough. Looking to sell a period spec? Strike one. Looking to sell a period spec that’s a small historical drama/biopic? You’re probably staring down at least two strikes unless your subject is iconic or eccentric enough to attract a big piece of talent.
THE LIGHTHOUSE doesn’t quite fall into either of those categories, but Kirsten manages to take a pretty straight-forward story that doesn’t sound all that sexy and crafts an engaging and entertaining script. That’s only done with good writing. And having a good writing sample is often better in the long run than managing to somehow sell a commercial idea that’s a bad piece of writing.
We open on two workers sitting on top of the metal frame of an in-construction skyscraper in the middle of New York City. It’s 1930, and these guys are wrapping up an 11-hour shift….which was preceded by a 12-hour shift. Needless to say, they’re having a hard time concentrating. As a crane sends a huge metal beam their way, Worker #1 starts to clip his buddy onto the support frame – except with all the Sandman’s dust in his eyes he doesn’t do it right and the hook comes loose, causing Worker #2 to lose his balance and plummet hundreds of feet to his death as his bloodshot friend can only watch and wake up real fast.
Good idea to grab our attention with an unexpected death scene instead of opening up on a guy using a protractor or something. If it worked for CLIFFHANGER… And we learned an important lesson: Building a skyscraper was dangerous shit back in those days.
Flashback seven years to Paris, where recent architecture grad Will Van Alen and his socialite best friend Harry Tanning decide to partner up and start a design firm of their own back in the States. With Will’s design talent and Harry’s contacts, they’re confident they’ll make a name for themselves. And when businessman Alan Reynolds approaches Will in an attempt to hire him to be part of a team designing a swanky new hotel in NYC, Will successfully uses his confidence and determination to convince Alan to give Will and Harry’s new firm the gig.
Unfortunately, with success comes responsibility and Harry’s just not pulling his weight bringing in new clients, so Will gives in to pressure from Alan to hire the slick, ego-driven Craig Severence as his new business partner, relegating Harry to mere “employee” status. Needless to say, Harry is pissed and his friendship with Will is deeply fractured.
Flash forward six years later: Will and Harry are still estranged, though Harry is now a model employee. Will meets spunky photographer Meg Bagley and they hit it off. Plus, Alan loves the new, innovative design that Will secretly sent him and greenlights construction! Will is thrilled. Craig, however, is less than pleased, making it known to Will that he is never to present a set of designs without consulting him first. It’s the first time that Will’s seen this darker side of Craig and it’s unsettling.
Meanwhile, Will makes a trip to see his older brother, Terry, who’s rotting away in Sing Sing for an unknown crime but one that Will implies helped him survive their tough childhood. Clearly wanting to make Terry proud, Will excitedly tells Terry about the imminent construction of his building and vows to find a way to get Terry out of prison.
But just as construction is about to start on Will’s awesome hotel design, Will gets called to see Alan. Seems the stock market crashed and Alan’s fortune disappeared along with it, which means Will’s building is dead and so is his company. As Craig and Will say their acrimonious goodbyes, Craig breaks the news that Alan has killed himself. The beginning of The Great Depression, both literally and figuratively for Will.
Everyone goes their separate ways and soon, Will finds himself standing in a food line, unable to find a job. Luckily, Harry shows up and wants to get their two-man band back together, tipping him off that Alan sold his land to William Chrysler (the car guy), who’s looking to build his new headquarters. So Will applies…and is promptly sent a standard rejection letter.
After a nice bender to try and drink his misery away, Meg and Terry convince Will to try and get his designs directly to Chrylser himself. Will manages to sneak his plans into Chrysler’s office but isn’t hopeful about his prospects until Chrysler makes a surprise appearance at Will’s modest apartment and requests to pay a visit to his company the next day…the company that doesn’t exist anymore. So Will rounds up a bunch of unemployed construction workers and breaks into his old office, succeeding in convincing Chrysler that he runs a reputable firm and getting the greenlight to start construction on what will be the world’s tallest building.
Except that at the groundbreaking, the press informs Will that his old partner/new nemesis Craig is working on an even taller skyscraper for the Bank of Manhattan. Chrysler tells Will that if he beats Craig, he’ll use his connections to get Terry out of prison. Will assures Chrysler that he has a plan…which he doesn’t. The race is on!
Which brings us back to the sleepy head at the start and his dead friend, who, it turns out, dies as a consequence of this race, having worked those multiple double shifts so that Craig’s building could come out on top. Wanting to make sure no one else dies because of their egotistical battle, Will agrees to not add anymore floors to his building plan, assuring that Craig will have the tallest building in the world, which Craig soon unveils to great fanfare.
So how does Will keep his word to Craig while simultaneously keeping his promise to Chrysler? In a dramatic unveiling of Will’s building, which Craig attends, a crane pulls out a HUGE GLEAMING SPIRE from the base of the building, placing it on the very top, making it taller than Craig’s and the tallest in the world. Our guys win!
Sadly, this being the real world, and the business world at that, we get a dose of “not so fast” when Chrysler reneges on his deal to help Terry get out of prison and it’s announced that the Chrysler Building will only remain the tallest for a few more months…until a little thing known as the Empire State Building is completed.
Historical/biopic scripts can often be generic and/or boring, following the same, simplistic dramatic clichés (“I’m gonna be somebody!”) or bogging themselves down by relying on a dense rundown of “the facts” to tell a story without giving much thought to the characters, dialogue and actual storytelling. And I guess that’s why THE LIGHTHOUSE kept me engaged throughout – because Kirsten focuses on, and does a good job with, crafting believable and well-written characters that we care about in a world that felt authentic.
Rather than focus on the big names behind the race to build the world’s tallest building, or the race itself on a superficial level, Kirsten finds a more personal way to tell the story by introducing us to Will Van Alen, a man with very relatable hopes, dreams, relationships, failures and triumphs. We come to know Will so well through the first two-thirds of the script that by the time the “race” enters the equation, we’re invested in Will’s goals and thereby invested in the skyscraper race – not the other way around – which wouldn’t have worked. If Chrysler himself had been made our protagonist, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have cared whether or not a rich guy managed to satisfy his ego and gain a little more notoriety. In fact, I probably would’ve rooted against him. Similarly, a multi-character take on the race would’ve likely come across as impersonal and cold. But in this version, we’re rooting for the likeable Will – not to win anything per se, but to realize his dream of building a towering monument and to get Terry out of prison. Okay, maybe we want him to smack Craig a little in the process, which doesn’t hurt. In the script, Kirsten reveals that Chrysler and the Bank of Manhattan honcho hated each other and desperately wanted to top the other and, sure, Kirsten could’ve told the story through this specific rivalry, but focusing on the rivalry between Will and his former partner Craig offers the same relationship dynamic albeit with characters and situations we could probably all relate to in some way, shape or form.
I will say that I wish Will wasn’t portrayed as such a good guy throughout the whole script (his dis of Harry notwithstanding). I think it would’ve made him a more interesting, complex character if we would’ve seen his darker side at some point. He admits to Meg that all architects are driven by ego, but he willing offers up that insight, and in a cheerful way. I would’ve rather seen Meg drag an angry confession out of him, her concern for Will’s obsession the ultimate reason why he calls the race off. What can I say? I wouldn’t have minded some shades of a version that could’ve been called THERE WILL BE BUILDING.
All in all, one of the more enjoyable historical biopics I’ve read in recent years.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: Often when people write historical scripts, it’s difficult for them to resist the urge to focus on the “big” elements in the tale, rather than find ways to create a more character-driven entrance into a particular story. The former version can end up reading like the kind of generic “highlights” biography I’d find in the Kids section of the book store, or, conversely, like I’m reading an encyclopedia. It’s generally more interesting to read a script that’s a personal story touched by an historical event rather than the other way around.