Genre: True Story/Biopic
Premise: The true life story of a man with multiple personality disorder who pleaded insanity in three rape cases back in the 1970s.
About: Titanic director James’ Cameron’s treatment of the true life story of Billy Milligan. Supposedly, when this looked like it was going to be a go movie, Milligan claims to have taught Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Cusack, and Christian Slater how to accurately portray someone with multiple personality disorder. One wonders if he was speaking with the real actors, or if they had also become characters in his head.
Writer: James Cameron
Details: 139 freaking pages.
Taking a break from The Black List today to give a little love to James Cameron. Tomorrow marks his first feature directorial effort in over ten years. And hence, we shall take a look at an old unproduced script of his, “Crowded Room.”
I can’t tell you how excited I was when I watched The Hollywood Reporter’s meeting of directors series that had Katheryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and Lee Daniels. Watching four of the directors I respect most chit chat as if they were hanging out at the local gym was better than 90% of the movies I saw this year. But the biggest gift was James Cameron’s response when asked how long he plans to direct for. I’d always assumed, since Cameron went AWOL after Titanic, that maybe he wasn’t all that into directing. Well it turns out I was wrong. Cameron divulged that the whole reason he went off the “deep end” (so to speak) was because he knew he wouldn’t be able to endure all that underwater stuff when he was older. Since he knew he could direct until he was 80, he decided to save that aspect of his career for later. He actually says that he’ll probably die on set! Hooray! Since, in my opinion, Cameron is the greatest big-budget director in the world (with no one else even close), this is about the happiest news I’ve come across in awhile.
So getting back on track here, in celebration of the release of Avatar, I thought it would be nice to take a look at one of Cameron’s older scripts, a little known project called “Crowded Room.” Crowded Room, unfortunately, doesn’t consist of any sci-fi elements, but is rather the true story of Billy Milligan, a man with multiple-personality disorder who raped 3 Ohio State college students in the 1970s, then pled innocent by reason of insanity, stating that it was one of his other personalities who did the raping, not him. I guess this was the case that began the end of accountability, huh?
This script is a bizarre mixed bag that is so clumsy in its execution, it makes me wonder just how interested James Cameron was in telling the story. The script starts off wonderfully, with us jumping between the multiple rape victims’ account of the rapes. Each one was methodical, with Billy catching them in the parking lot, bringing them to a secluded location, making them undress, reading them a poem, raping them, then taking them out to lunch.
It’s intense, it’s horrifying, it’s mysterious. During the accounts, Billy is said to have mentioned “the others” and some kind of “brotherhood,” so you’re thinking this has a lot of interesting places it can go. But interesting places to go it does not. What happens next is a brief snapshot of Billy’s trial, where he wins the case on the insanity plea, is then sent to a mental hospital for rehabilitation, and then, on page 40, we’re inexplicably thrust back to the beginning of Billy’s life, as an 8 year old boy, with a clueless mom and an abusive step father.
What follows is a bumpy reflection of – I guess – how Billy created these personalities.The people in his head consist of a Slavic man who reads and writes in perfect Serbo-Croation, a refined Englishman, a petty thief, an escape artist, an angry lesbian (supposedly the one who did the raping – not sure how that works). All in all, there are over 20 different personalities living inside of Billy. Now I know you’re probably reading this and going, “That sounds pretty cool.” But the problem is, none of these personalities is ever utilized in an interesting way. They occasionally pop up and start bitching about their situation. We hear a lot *about* what they can do. But as far using each of their unique traits to craft a story…no, we never get anything even close to that.
In fact, all we do is go back and forth between these lame points in Billy’s life (in one portion he’s involved in drugs! oh no!) occasionally jumping inside Billy’s mind where these personalities argue about how to keep their existence a secret from Billy. There’s absolutely no form to the story. We’re never given any clues as to where it’s going. And because of that, Crowded Room is as aimless as the mind of its main character.
I guess I’d understand the jump back to Billy’s earlier life if they left us with a cliff-hanger as to whether Billy would win the case or not – the implication being that we needed to go back and understand how Billy obtained this personalities in order to decide whether we wanted to root for his acquittal or not – but since his verdict is already decided, we leave that time without any sense of suspense whatsoever. After this long arduous flashback that takes nearly 80 pages, we come back to the present where a second trial seemingly pops out of nowhere, making an even stronger case for leaving us with a court cliffhanger, since we ended up coming back to the court anyway.
I wasn’t even clear on what this second case was about, but to be honest, by this point I was checked out of the story. There was just nothing interesting going on.
As long as we’re talking about cases, Crowded Room is another case for why I don’t think biopics work. People’s lives don’t fit into the three act structure. Ever. For that reason, they always feel clumsy and wrong, and because you must honor the truth of the subject’s life, you consistently miss out on some of the more intriguing opportunities the story can take advantage of. For instance, there are a few personalities in Billy that don’t seem to stem from logic. How does one of his personalities know how to read, write, and speak in a completely different language? How does one of his characters have better escape skills than Houdini? How can one of his personalities be left-handed? There is just some great potential to explore there, particularly if you jumped into the ream of the supernatural and began to ask, “What if this is more than just multiple personality disorder? What if the people inside his head are actually real?” That’s a movie I’d wanna see. Instead, we just get a bunch of cops and lawyers musing, “Did you realize that one of his personalities is left-handed?”
I don’t know. This started out great, but went south quickly. I’m still seeing Avatar this weekend though dammit. Thank God for present day Cameron.
Note: You can hear more opinions on this script by going over to Mystery Man’s site. He and some friends broke down the script themselves (I have not read the breakdowns so I don’t know if they liked or disliked the script).
What I learned: Um, biopics suck? Let’s see. What else? Cameron has an interesting style of writing. He’ll write these huge 10-line paragraph chunks that drive readers crazy, but then he’ll have like ten pages of just dialogue, so you forgive him. I’ll tell you what drives me crazy. It’s writers who add little mini-paragraphs between every line of dialogue (or even every couple of lines). I understand the intention is to give us a little insight into what’s happening in the scene. But it seriously interrupts the flow of the read. For example.
This pie is amazing.
She licks her fork seductively.
Thanks. It’s a special recipe.
He cleans off his plate.
So what are we doing tomorrow?
She walks over and joins him at the sink.
Ehh, maybe go to a movie?
He gives her a quick kiss.
AHHHHHHHHH!!! I guarantee if you write like this the reader will just stop reading your line descriptions and go straight to the dialogue. So you might as well save space and make your script look cleaner anyway by not including any of this nonsense. Only add the action lines if they’re absolutely necessary.