Premise: One of the unluckiest men alive is given seven days of perfect luck.
About: This is the number 1 script on “The Brit List,” which is the UK’s answer to “The Black List.” This appears to be Kay’s big break, as he only has one other property in development, the optioned “All Quiet On The Orient Express.” The director of that film, Jim Field Smith, will also be directing “Good Luck, Anthony Belcher.” Smith’s previous work includes, “She’s Outta My League,” a spec sale which I read last year and thought was pretty damn funny. That movie has not yet hit theaters.
Writer: George Kay
The Brits know how to capitalize on a trend. They saw the Black List and realized, “Hey, we can do one of those.” It took them a couple of years to actually organize the thing but low and behold, two years ago The Brit List was born. I have to admit, the list has its work cut out for it at Scriptshadow. That’s because 2007’s number one script was “The Men Who Stare At Goats.” And we all know how I felt about that script (The goal in a screenplay is to push the story forward. If you can’t do that, at least keep it standing in place. Goats somehow manages to pull the story backward). So to say I’m going into this list with a skeptical eye is an obscene understatement. But I will strive to give my brothers across the pond a fair shake. So as I slide my objective glasses up, it’s time to go to work on “Good Luck, Anthony Belcher.”
Anthony Belcher is an air conditioning salesman who’s riddled with bad luck. His sales are anemic. He always misses the bus. He never gets the girl. His parents died when he was young. To give you an idea of just how bad it is for Anthony, he is the only man in the world who’s been shit on by a bird. INDOORS. One day, Anthony’s lured to an old house, goes up a strange elevator (or, I’m sorry, a “lift”) that’s straight out of a Charlie Kaufman movie. Once in the attic, he meets a couple of scraggly old men. They introduce themselves as The Society Of Good Luck and Serendipity – in charge of luck, fate, kismet, karma, what have you. It appears that Anthony’s file was dropped behind a desk and lost for the last 27 years, which means they haven’t been able to balance out his luck.
As an act of good faith, they’ve decided to make up for their mistake by giving Anthony 7 full days of perfect luck. There are a few conditions of course. He can’t play the lottery (the winners have been predetermined for the next 13 years) and he has to go about his life in a somewhat normal fashion (he still has to go to work everyday, etc.) Clearly these are conditions to keep the story from going off the rails, and they stick out as so, but these kind of conventions are acceptable in high concept comedies as long as you don’t go overboard with them. Anyway, great premise right?
With luck on his side, everything starts going right for Anthony. That bus he always missed shows up right on time. Construction that week has actually moved his stop to right in front of his place. Instead of having to fight people on sales calls, they now answer with, “My air conditioner just died.” Contests are won, all his jokes are funny, coworkers fall in love him. Everything in Anthony’s life becomes…perfect.
In case you haven’t figured it out, “Good Luck Anthony Belcher” is unapologetically a straight-forward high concept comedy. But that’s not a bad thing. The execution here is strong, which is the only element that matters in these stories. Of course anybody can come up with a wacky idea. But it’s the writers who know how to build a story around that idea that get their scripts sold. So yes there’s the wacky friend. Yes there’s the unattainable love interest. Yes Anthony begins taking advantage of his luck which results in a bunch of problems. But all of this is done with skill and care, and for that reason, despite its predictability, “Anthony Belcher” manages to be fun.
If there’s a problem with the script, it’s in the second half, where there’s definitely some momentum loss. Here’s what I’ve found with these comedies. Almost all of them run into problems in that second half, and that’s because the story often becomes a victim of its own plot. The writer has to answer questions and move towards concluding the story, and in doing so, loses a lot of comedy along the way. The late Blake Snyder may be responsible for some of this. His emphasis on the “fun and games” section of the 3-Act Structure that occurs at the beginning of the second act is great advice. However it implies there shouldn’t be any fun or any games later on in the script, which is where a lot of these comedies need it (and why so many of them seem to be top-heavy). Whatever the case, Belcher definitely suffers in this area, and I’m sure the rewrites are concentrating on this problem.
Still, the script is fun. I liked Anthony. I liked his roommate (who ends up getting the opposite treatment, and is bestowed a string of bad luck to Anthony’s good). I liked the girl. And the “bad guy” co-worker, while standard, is well-constructed. Maybe my knowledge of the British entertainment world is limited, but this definitely felt like a Ricky Gervais or Simon Pegg vehicle. I was imagining Gervais delivering the lines (even though the character is in his 20s) and couldn’t stop laughing.
My issue with these high-concept comedies is I’m always wishing they were edgier. I want the writers to take more chances, because without an edge, the ideas blend into each other. I’ve only read one other script on The Brit List so I can’t say if this is worthy of garnering the top spot, but it’s definitely a solid effort. And it leaves us with an interesting question: If you knew you’d have perfect luck for a week, what would you do?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If you’re going to follow a “template” when writing a script, High Concept Comedy is probably the best genre to do it in. It just lends itself nicely to the 3 act structure and all those other little beats and motivations you have to hit. Straightforward dramas, thrillers, action, horror, westerns…they all have their own little nuances that complicate borrowing from a template. I am by no means suggesting that following a template is the way to go. I try to encourage taking chances and trying something different where it makes sense. But if you do want to follow a template, do it with a High Concept Comedy.
Can we talk about something for a second? One of my favorite screenplays of the year? A little script called “Buried” about a man who wakes up inside a coffin with no memory of how he got there? Oh yeah, did I mention that the entire script takes place inside that coffin? Still not jogging your memory? Go check out my review of the script here. The script was purchased earlier this year and secured Ryan Reynolds as the one-man lead in the film. Production has since been completed.
Through the grace of one of Scriptshadow’s helpful fans who happened to know Chris, I was able to do a little trapping of my own and convince Mr. Sparling to do an interview for the site. Chris was more than happy to help out. A little background on Chris first. He is a writer/director/actor/producer/screenwriting teacher who took matters into his own hands when he wrote/directed/produced his first film back in 2005 titled, “An Uzi At The Alamo.” Chris recently sold another script titled, “Mercy,” to Gold Circle Films on September 24th. Clearly they must have heard he was going to be interviewed on Scriptshadow. Anyway, I’ll stop talking and give the floor to the man himself, Chris Sparling. Enjoy the interview.
CS: I wish I could say it was some uniquely artistic reason, but it actually was a financial decision. It had been about four or five years since I shot a feature, and I was getting sort of antsy. Anyway, I tried to come up with the most contained story I could possibly tell, in addition to being one that involved as few actors as possible. From there, I felt there had to be a compelling reason why someone would be buried alive, rather than go the straight horror route and chalk it up to some crazy, Saw-like lunatic who just wants to torture someone. After then researching the dangers so many civilian contractors are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the unimaginable conditions those of them who are kidnapped endure, I knew right away I had my reason.
SS: I noticed you were an actor and a director as well as a writer. Were you writing something you could shoot and act in yourself? If so, what made you give up the acting and directing parts?
CS: Although I did initially intend on directing Buried, I never saw myself playing Paul. For one, I originally wrote him as being much older than me (even though Ryan Reynolds ended up playing the role, and we’re just about the same age), and second, I’ve done the DIY, wear-all-the-hats-at-once thing before and the movie suffered as a result. Also, once I saw Rodrigo Cortes’ first film, The Contestant, I knew he was the right person to direct Buried. He’s incredibly gifted, and unlike many other directors we considered, he was the only one who wanted to stay true to the script by keeping the entire story in the box. And, of course, we were fortunate enough to land an incredibly talented and courageous actor in Ryan, who was willing to take a risk on this crazy movie.
SS: How many scripts had you written before Buried? Which script did you realize that maybe you were getting the hang of it?
CS: Before Buried, I think I’d written about nine or ten features and two TV specs. Truth be told, it didn’t start to click for me until about my seventh feature script.
SS: What’s your process as a writer? Do you write quickly? Does it take awhile? Do you outline? How many drafts do you write?
CS: I kind of follow a pyramid design, in that I start with the bigger, broader things first and then steadily make my way up to the more detailed aspects of the script. Typically, I’ll write a brief synopsis (3-5 pages), then a character breakdown, followed by a thorough scene breakdown/step outline, and then finally a first draft of the script itself. Thankfully, yes,I do write pretty quickly, which helps because I usually write at least two or three drafts of a spec.
SS: One of the things I like so much about Buried is that it seems to follow the generally accepted rules of screenwriting, but like all great scripts, does so without the reader realizing they’re there. For example, in my review, I talk about your exceptional use of multiple ticking time bombs and how effective they were. Are you a “rules” guy? Or do you just follow your gut?
CS: Like I said before, it took me writing about seven scripts before everything seemed to click. For me, finally “getting it” meant being able to write from the gut and not having to consciously worry about hitting certain plot points or whatever else, because you end up hitting them anyway.
SS: A mutual acquaintance mentioned that you taught screenwriting. When you go into a semester, what are the most important pieces of information you want your students to leave with?
CS: I only teach from time to time, but when I do, I implore my students to learn how the film business works. Honing their craft should go without saying, which is why I stress the need for them to get out to festivals, make contacts, attend film markets, intern, and do just about anything else they can do to learn about the business they hope to someday work in.
SS: What is the most common mistake you see screenwriters make?
CS: Amazingly, not reading screenplays. This clearly doesn’t seem to be the case for the readers of your site, but on the whole, it’s a mistake a lot of writers make. How-To books are great, as are classes and seminars, but there’s no better (or cheaper) way to become a better writer than to read as many scripts as you can get your hands on.
SS: What do you think the key is, not necessarily to write a great script, but to sell a script? Or are they one and the same?
CS: So far, I’ve only sold two specs: Buried and, most recently, a horror/thriller called Mercy. What made those scripts sell and not the nine or ten others before them? It could simply be that they were better scripts, but it’s probably more do do with access — access to people who are now actually willing to read my stuff. This is why I think it’s so important to understand how the business works. You have to know who the gatekeepers are, how to get to them, how to get them to turn your pages, and then — provided your stuff is good enough — you will get read by the the people who have the power to buy your spec.
SS: How did you obtain agency representation and what is your advice for other writers seeking representation?
As I mentioned before, I made a no-budget indie a few years back, which caught the attention of my manager, Aaron Kaplan. He didn’t sign me right away, but he apparently saw enough promise in me to continue reading my scripts and watch some things I directed and acted in. Fast forward to just over a year ago, when I was already about six months into pre-production on Buried (the no-budget version I was going to direct), I sent him the script and he flipped for it. Two days later he signed me. From there, he got the script over to the agencies he had relationships with and within a week or so I signed with Charlie Ferraro and Doug Johnson at UTA. As for advice on how to get a rep, all I can say is to be persistent. Not overbearing; persistent. Apart from that, another great way is to connect with a producer — one who believes in your talent — and then, when the time is right, ask that person to refer you to some reps they regularly work with.
SS: How important to a screenwriter’s success do you think it is to have other things going on besides the writing (ie directing, acting, producing, blogging, teaching)?
I’m not sure doing any or all of these things are vital to being a successful screenwriter, but they certainly don’t hurt.
SS: With studios putting more emphasis than ever on adaptations (and hiring guns to write them), it’s getting harder and harder to find truly original material. But a couple of original ideas broke through this summer in The Hangover and District 9. What’s your opinion on the state of industry?
I think the public wants comfort right now.. We’re facing unprescedented economic hardship; we want to escape to the places and do the things we know for sure make us happy. There’s no risk there, and that makes us feel comfortable spending our hard earned money at the box office. That’s why everything seems to be pre-awareness these days. But, as you pointed out, there have been several original films that have broken through and, subsequently, performed very well in their own right. In my opinion, as we begin to pull out of this recession, I think the flip back to more original content will start to happen. But until then, enjoy the big screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s latest release, Iron Man 2, Rambo 5, Battleship the movie…..
SS: What is your opinion on Josh Olson’s recent rant that he will not read your fucking script? Would you read Josh Olson’s script?
CS: I understand both sides of this debate. From Josh Olson’s side, I have personally experienced the “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” backlash from reading someone’s script. About four years ago, a woman (a complete stranger, mind you) emailed me and asked if I would read not one script, but two. Evidently, she and her writing partner had written two different versions of a story they came up with, and they wanted to know which of the two was better. Long story short, I agreed, and when I wrote back and told her I thought script B was better than script A, she got all bent out of shape because she wrote script A. Here it was I gave a complete stranger about three hours of my time (I read very slowly) and an unbiased, somewhat professional opinion, and in return she basically told me I was an idiot and that she shouldn’t have wasted HER time by contacting me in the first place. Again, that’s just one example of why I can see things from Josh Olson’s side. However, and this is a pretty big however, I’m not sure I agree with the way he went about saying what he said. I would imagine he was once a struggling screenwriter too, so he should know firsthand how hard it is to get stuff read — and therefore shouldn’t fault writers for trying.
Thanks again to Chris. I hope you guys found some wisdom, motivation, or inspiration from his words. I think one of the common threads I’m starting to see with success is that people who achieve it attack their dream from different angles. Writing is such an invisible pursuit. No one sees you doing it. So if you’re out there acting, directing, producing, even blogging. Those things are more visible and give you a stage to promote your writing ambitions. Just a thought.
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Premise: A recently divorced female chef must cope with the disappearance of her next-door neighbor.
About: Marisa Tomei and Liv Tyler will star in this remake of South Korean director Chul-Soo Park’s 1995 film, “301/302.” Park will also direct the remake.
Writer: Floyd Byars
Cooking is just something I don’t do. If it requires a combination of ingredients, I’m not going to be the one combining them. If it’s in a bag or a box or between two sheets of bread, that’s my wheelhouse. They say you should step out of your comfort zone every once in awhile. Believe me, I’ve tried. And it’s never pretty. So when there is cooking to be done, I will wait politely behind the kitchen line while somebody else takes care of it. That said, the art of cooking intrigues me. Particularly the people who become obsessed with it. And there’s nobody more obsessed with cooking than Amy.
You see, Amy spent the better part of her marriage trying to make her husband happy in a very specific way: cooking for him. Breakfast, lunch, dinner…everything was about feeding and satisfying her man. But Amy has a bit of problem. She’s a teensy bit needy. And when I say “teensy bit” I mean “insanely fucking.” She’s always asking if the dish was good. “Was it good?” “Did you like it?” “Do you want more?” “Are you happy?” “Are you satisfied?” “Did you like it?” “Did you like it?” “Did you like it?” Over and over and over again. A few years of that will drive any man crazy. And sure enough, her husband went searching for someone else a little less obsessed with feeding him. In the meantime, Amy began eating everything her husband wouldn’t. And pretty soon, she looked like a chef whose food never made it out of the kitchen.
Flashforward to present day, where Amy, newly divorced, is being questioned by a detective about the whereabouts of the woman living in the next door apartment.This neighbor, Saffron, was a child actress who’s since found the acting industry noticeably unresponsive. As a result, she starves herself, trying to become as skinny as humanly possible, in hopes that that will somehow make up for her lack of youth. Before the disappearance went down, Amy forces her way into Saffron’s life, feeling the need to feed her, as she believes Saffron will die if she doesn’t. The contrast here of a “feeder” and a woman who “needs to be fed” is interesting, although it’s dealt with in such a weird way, it’s hard to determine if the result is successful. It definitely succeeds in being eerie, but I also feel like there was something lost in translation here. Whatever the case, it’s different. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.
The script itself jumps back and forth in time so much, it would make Tarantino’s head spin. We’re “fed” (heh heh) information this way, which helps us put together some of the earlier mysteries, and piece together the characters’ motivations. This time jumping is handled well enough, though we occasionally spend such large chunks of time in the past, that the rhythm of the screenplay is thrown off. I couldn’t quite tell if we were in the present, experiencing flashbacks, or if were in the past, experiencing flashforwards. What is this? An episode of Lost?
I think it goes without saying that the Koreans have a unique view of the world. It’s this view, I’m assuming, that doesn’t quite mesh with the way we tell stories over here, which becomes both a blessing and a curse for the script. For example, large portions of the Korean movie “The Host” seem to focus on the most insignificant aspects of the characters’ lives. Yet you have Oldboy, which is one of my favorite films (due to one of the best twist endings I’ve ever seen), which seems to resonate on many levels.
I have a feeling this movie is going to be all about mood, and I’m guessing Park will follow the lead of his original film. Has anyone seen this film? Can you tell us how it’s directed? Cause direction will definitely be key here. I picture a lot of lingering silences that aren’t evident in the script. In the right places, this could add a lot to a screenplay that lacks focus in areas.
In the end – if I’m going to keep the analogies going – 10A-10B is like the dish on the menu you’re intrigued by, but are afraid to try. I took a chance, and while it wasn’t quite for me, there are some tasty things here, at least enough to satisfy your appetite for the evening. :)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: 10A-10B does one of the better jobs of setting up a character I’ve seen in awhile. Amy is obsessed with cooking to the point of being freakish. So how does Byars go about showing this? Well, the opening scene focuses on a detective questioning Amy about the missing girl. Lesser writers would’ve made that the only thing going on in the scene. But Byars has Amy cooking during the questioning. So while the detective questions her, she’s also questioning the detective. “Did you like that?” “Was it good?” “Would you like desert?” “Do you want more?” Etc. Etc. So we get the immediate sense that something’s not quite right with this girl. Not setting up your characters properly is one of the biggest mistakes I see amateur writers make, so this is a great scene to study.
Roger comes with both a review and a surprise today. The review is for a Joss Whedon spec written many moons ago. And the surprise is a…hmmm…shall we say a “not entirely real query letter” he and his writing partner created. This query letter isn’t just bad, it’s downright awful. Yet awfully entertaining. So go check it out over at The Deep Thoughts Of Great Importance Blog. In the meantime, as those of you trolling through the spec underbelly know, The Brit List was released last week, and I plan to delve into a few of these scripts here on the site. The Brit List is basically the UK’s answer to The Black List, which will surely whet our appetite for 2009’s Black List, which should be right around the corner. Oh, and I’ve decided to have a horror week on the week of the 31st where I review…yes, you’re hearing this right…a full 5 horror scripts. So get your suggestions in now. — Here’s Roger with his review of “Afterlife.”
Genre: Thriller, Action, Science Fiction
Premise: A resurrected government scientist escapes his handlers to find his wife, who believes he is dead.
About: Back in the early 90’s, before Joss fled screenwriting to build his television empire, he wrote and sold two high-selling specs. This is one of them. At one point, Andy Tennant (Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama), was attached to direct.
Writer: Joss Whedon
In 1994, three whole years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on our television screens, Joss Whedon wrote and sold a spec called “Afterlife”, a high-concept thriller about a government scientist named Daniel Hoffstetter.
Doesn’t Daniel die in the first 8 pages?
Indeed, he does. But let’s back up. Daniel is in his mid-fifties. He’s a thin and frail world renowned scientist doing important DNA research. So important, that like a lot of academics, he seems more married to his work than to his wife, Laura.
Daniel loves his wife, but sometimes he has to do things like show his boss, Leonard, the new program he’s been working on rather than take Laura to the annual fair.
A dark cloud hangs over their marriage.
Daniel is sick and we’re not even ten pages in when he dies. Laura never has a chance to say goodbye, because she falls asleep in a hospital chair when his disease-ridden body finally fails him.
But this script is 130 pages long! He can’t die!
You’re right. But don’t worry. Daniel wakes up and notices that there are no tubes connected to his arms. In fact, his arms look different. Strong and powerful.
His boss, Leonard, explains to him that the bio-electric matrix of his mind has been imprinted onto the tabula rasa of another brain.
Daniel has been given a second-chance. The new body his consciousness now abides in is younger and stronger than his old one. An able specimen for fighting and shooting things…should he ever need to do that.
And fight and shoot he’ll choose to do, because, you see, Daniel works for The Tank now.
What’s The Tank?
The Tank is the part of the government the CIA doesn’t even know about. Resurrected scientists who work on secret government stuff, monitored by the watchful eye of Colonel Kendrick and his head of security, Bo.
Daniel doesn’t look at his predicament as a second chance. He sees himself as a prisoner. All Daniel wants to do is talk to his wife, but of course, he’s not allowed. If the CIA doesn’t know about his existence, why should civilians? This is his new life, secluded from the rest of the world in a clandestine facility miles underneath the desert.
When Bo tells Daniel that he should forget about his wife (by callously informing him that she’s now seeing a math teacher), Daniel comes up with a plan. He studies the security tech, the routines and protocol of the bunker.
And in a pretty gratifying action-set piece, Daniel escapes the bunker and makes it to the surface. There’s a car chase involving helicopters (and a tow truck; awesome!), and it’s a great example of how to write action. In fact, the script is one big example of how to write action set-pieces that aren’t there just for the sake of it, but actually serve to move the story along.
But there’s a twist to Act 2 (and to Act 3) that turns on the heat.
When Daniel makes it into a store to use a phone, there’s a reason the little boy sitting atop the Coke cooler keeps calling him “Snowman”. It’s an eerie detail, and we sort of forget about it until the store owner starts yelling expletives, pulls out a gun, and tries to kill Daniel.
Why did the store owner start shooting at him and what does that have to do with the word “Snowman”?
Snowman is the nickname of the executed serial killer, Jamie Snow. His other nickname is The Beast, but I guess that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Jamie Snow is Daniel’s new body.
So, not only is The Tank after Daniel, but Daniel can’t really blend into crowds or enter civilized establishments without being attacked by pawnshop owners, scared policemen, earnest security guards, and concerned citizens.
If that weren’t enough, when Connecticut Homicide Detective Bob Moody learns that the serial killer he captured, the serial killer that was supposedly executed, has returned and is mingling with the hoi polloi, he obsessively joins the chase, too.
Can Daniel make it to his wife? More importantly, can he convince her that he really is Daniel, and not just a psycho killer (by the way, this script is way better than Andrew Kevin Walker’s “Psycho Killer”) whose path of most resistance is making national headlines?
He can. And he does. Act 2 is a Fugitive-esque race, an entertaining game of cat and mouse that is worth studying, especially if you’re interested in writing scripts that contain action set-pieces. Not only is it great to examine to see how Joss so easily entertains, but it’s worth looking at to see how Joss writes people.
I don’t think it’s a stretch at this point to declare that, simply put, Joss knows that people (characters) make the best stories. He understands relationships. If you don’t believe me, look at the end of the 2nd Act and pay attention to what he highlights.
This is an action script, but he focuses on Daniel and Laura rediscovering each other. He writes their intimate scene (the heart of this script) as if this married couple are two new lovers consummating their love for the first time. A flame reunited. Now that’s vertical relational depth, and that’s why Joss Whedon Is Your Master.
Roger, you mentioned there was a twist as we enter into Act 3?
There is, and it’s one you’ll see coming. (But there’s another one that comes right after it that will either work or piss you off.)
Back at The Tank, the resurrected scientists begin to have problems. Those bio-electrical matrices that have been supposedly imprinted on tabula rasa(s)? Well, they’re sort of going bye-bye. The minds of the “donors” are starting to resurface, erasing the minds of the government academics. In a nutshell? Serial killers are reclaiming their bodies.
And here’s the train-wreck: We know that Daniel is going to fight for control over his new body with the mass murderer, Jamie Snow. And he’s going to be doing it whilst isolated in a cabin with his newly reunited wife.
So Act 3 is a collision of ingredients: (1) A Sybil-like struggle over control of Daniel’s body, (2) Laura trying to escape from Daniel (which goes back and forth; she’s confused), (3) the Tank company men trying to clean up their mess, (4) Detective Moody confronting Daniel in his quest for the truth and (5) local law-enforcement thrown in the mix to complicate the man-hunt.
And yeah, there is another twist which I don’t want to give away here. Read it for yourself and see if it works.
Like at the end of any good Buffy (or Faith, amirite?) episode, conflict is resolved with a healthy dose of fisticuffs. It’s an action movie, what do you expect? It’s also a Joss-tale, so we get a final scene that serves as a bittersweet coda to the end of Daniel and Laura’s journey together. And it connects. It makes you feel.
All in all, a solid script that tells a tale and tells it well. Great dialogue, tangible characters, and action sequences written by a master craftsman. Definitely one of the specs to study if you want to play by the rules (and perhaps the germ for Dollhouse?)
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Even if you’re writing stories with fantastic elements, this script reinforced my theory that it’s best to focus on the human elements. Even though this is science-fiction, it doesn’t feel like it’s set in an imaginary world. It feels like it’s set in the real world, and I think that’s a wise choice. It’s good to remember, that for an average movie-going audience, people are subconsciously willing to invest into suspension of disbelief. More-so than people in the industry. They are more willing to just go with a story, unlike those who are studying the craft, or story-telling in general. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim high. Where is the line that people start to clock out of a story because they judge it “unbelievable?” And what kind of people are more willing to suspend disbelief and be content to experience awe and wonder? It’s worth thinking about.
Premise: We chronicle the infamous career-long battle between screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, specifically on the set of the only film they ever made together, “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.”
About: I believe this script is optioned but has not been purchased. The details are a little sketchy. What I can tell you is it came highly recommended from a trusted source. The main film it chronicles, “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane,” was made in 1962 for 980 thousand dollars.
Writers: Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam
Can somebody say, “Cat Fight?” Rrrreow. I’m going to be honest with you, I’d never seen a Joan Crawford or a Bette Davis film until yesterday. In fact, my cinema I.Q. goes down about a hundred points when discussing anything before 1960. I love Jimmy Stewart. Citizen Kane is rad. Hitchcock rocks. But outside of a few other highlights, it’s all a bunch of black and white over-glamorized over-acted close-ups. I know, I know. The Golden Era of Film and blah blah blah. It’s just really hard for me to get into that time. That’s a long way of saying I knew very little about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis before reading this script. And I definitely didn’t know anything about this lifelong rivalry/feud of theirs. So before I read it I did a little research into the women that pioneered the word “diva” and came away convinced that both of them were completely fucking nuts.
I’m basing this off the writers’ descriptions but for the uninitiated, *on-screen* Joan Crawford was basically the hottest movie star on the planet (Megan Fox type?) and *on-screen* Bette Davis was basically the best actress on the planet (a kind of Kate Winslet?) But we’re not meeting these actresses in their prime. No no. We’re meeting them after all the bright lights and adoring fans have disappeared. They’re in their 50s now, still respected but too old to be headlining anything.
Joan approaches auteur director of his time, Robert Aldrich, with a book she wants to turn into a movie called, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” You might recognize Aldrich’s name. He was the director of The Dirty Dozen. But see that movie was still another five years away. At this point, he had about as much clout as Pauly Shore in getting his next movie made. Anyway, “Baby Jane” seemed like a good bet as it was a contained dark thriller, and another contained dark thriller had just opened in the U.S.. You might remember it. It was called “Psycho” (How appropriate, right?). The issue was a simple but daunting one. The movie centered entirely around two women in their 50s, and Joan wanted Bette Davis to play opposite her. Everybody knew these two detested each other but the reality was, they had become a couple of old movie stars cashing in on their former glory. But the press and media attention surrounding them working together would be unmatched – potentially catapulting them back into superstardom, particularly if the movie delivered. As reluctant as Bette was at first, she too recognized the opportunity here, and signed up.
Now here’s where things get funny. The synopsis of the film reads, “Two aging film actresses live as virtual recluses in an old Hollywood mansion. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), a successful child star, cares for her crippled sister Blanche (Crawford), who’s career in later years eclipsed that of Jane. Now the two live together, their relationship affected by simmering subconscious thoughts of mutual envy, hate and revenge.” Not only were they playing opposite each other, they were playing opposite each other in roles that perfectly fit their real life personas! It would be like putting Bruce Willis in a Michael Bay movie about an actor and director who hated each other (then again it seems like everyone hates Bruce Willis these days).
As soon as production began, the claws came out. Joan gave all the crew members gifts so they’d treat her better than Bette. Bette way overdid her make-up and costume to make sure she upstaged Joan. The two pouted, threw fits, talked behind each others’ backs to the media. And poor Aldrich had to endure it all, spending the majority of his time playing babysitter to these alcoholic chimney smoking lunatics rather than directing (I hear those eyebrows alone are a direct result of helming “Baby Jane”). And yet because there was so much real life going on behind each performance, the dailies came back celluloid gold.
To be honest though, I was a little disappointed with this portion of the screenplay because my research led me to believe this was the on-set battle to end all on-set battles. Yet the actual blows seemed minor by today’s standards. For example, in a scene where Bette serves Joan a dead rat, Bette switches out the rubber one with a real one. Or later, Joan replaces Bette’s chocolates with packed meat. Packed meat?? I thought these two hated each other. What about poison?? Then there was a scene where Bette, who had a bad back, had to pick up Joan, so Joan added a belt of heavy weights underneath her clothes to make herself extra heavy. Is it just me or are these the kinds of hijinks you might expect on an episode of I Love Lucy? When I compare them to what went down with someone like Orson Welles, who was basically blacklisted out of Hollywood for upsetting William Randolph Hearst…it just didn’t feel like that all-out war I was hoping for.
Luckily, Best Actress wasn’t just about “Baby Jane.” It was about what happened afterwards when Bette Davis was a shoe-in for an academy award then lost because Crawford called all of Hollywood and told them not to vote for her. It’s about these desperate actresses so terrified of being left behind, that a year later after each had endured another bomb, they actually worked together again (in a movie Crawford was later fired from), choosing pure misery if it gave them even an inkling of a chance to hold onto that spotlight for a little longer. And it’s about these two kooky human beings developing a strange bond and respect for each other, despite all that happened between them.
Best Actress was fun. It taught me about a piece of history I knew nothing about and it did so in an entertaining way. The strength here is obviously these two titans, their obsession with fame, and what it brings out in them. I actually realized after finishing the script that its structure was quite loose. Yet it works because we were so obsessed with these insanely complicated characters. As far as its faults, there are a few. I did wish their on-set war was a bit more extreme. Audiences these days aren’t going to think much of an actress trying to throw out another actresses’ back. You might be stuck with history here, but if there’s any way to make these things more menacing, more intense, I believe the script will benefit from it. But other than that, Best Actress was a nice change of pace from all the thrillers, comedies, and action flicks I’ve been reading of late. Check it out if you’re in any way curious. Then do what I did and go rent “All About Eve” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Watching each is a riot once you have some background on the two.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Despite its loose structure, Best Actress works. Why? Simple. It goes back to the most basic element of drama: conflict. You have two people who hate each other. That simple conflict drives the entire movie. Now conflict comes in many forms and you don’t want to have two people at each others’ throats for every movie. But if it fits, that intensity, that energy, can add a surprising amount of drama to your story.